We can heal our nation through service

Essay By
AnnMaura Connolly
Guest Author

AnnMaura Connolly is a 2015 Presidential Leadership Scholar, President of Voices for National Service, and Chief External Engagement of Policy and International Officer/EVP at City Year.

When disaster strikes, AmeriCorps is there. When students need extra help, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, AmeriCorps is there. When veterans and military families need support, AmeriCorps is there.  

AmeriCorps – the federal agency for national service – has excelled at “getting things done” for 30 years. From food insecurity to homelessness to public health, AmeriCorps members step up to the challenge in communities large and small, urban, and rural, around the country and are often called upon by presidents, members of Congress, and governors and mayors of different parties to address urgent needs in communities. 

AmeriCorps returns $17 for every dollar invested by the federal government, a recent cost benefit study from Voices of Service found. That’s a remarkable return for a federal program. But beyond the dollars and cents, AmeriCorps has thrived for three decades with strong bipartisan support because AmeriCorps brings Americans together to put aside their differences for the common good.  

At a time when our nation is as divided as we have ever been, AmeriCorps offers us a glimpse into what it will take to heal the soul of this country. By bringing citizens together to roll up their sleeves and bring energy and passion to the challenges we face, AmeriCorps can help us rekindle the spirit of commitment and build new bonds of understanding. But AmeriCorps is at risk of losing a third of its members because of federal budget challenges. 

We can’t let this happen. 

Across the country, AmeriCorps members are tutoring and mentoring students, helping veterans transition to civilian life, building affordable housing, and helping communities rebuild after disaster strikes. They are fighting the opioid crisis, addressing conservation needs and preserving public lands.  They are developing skills and experiences that help them find jobs.  And they are demonstrating that we can move the needle on some of the most intractable challenges facing our communities. 

Presidents of both parties have recognized the power of serving together as a powerful force for good.  

President George H. W. Bush famously referred to “a thousand points of light” – community organizations “that are spread like stars throughout the nation, doing good” and the timelessness of “duty, sacrifice, commitment, and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in.”  

He established the first White House Office of National Service and later led the effort to establish the Points of Light Foundation to promote service and volunteering. Six days a week, he handed out Points of Light Awards to citizens serving their communities.  

In the traditional meeting between the outgoing president and the incoming one on Inauguration Day, President Bush asked President Clinton to continue to support Points of Light, and he did. 

President Clinton had his own approach to unlocking the talent and passion of young Americans – and he created AmeriCorps, a new domestic national service program that was organized as a public-private partnership to invest in nonprofit and community organizations around the country. AmeriCorps makes grants to a wide array of community and nonprofit organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, City Year, Public Allies, Food Corps, and hundreds more, allowing them to pay stipends to diverse young Americans and deploy them for a year of national service.  

President Clinton swore in the first cohort of AmeriCorps members in 1994, leading them in a new pledge to “bring Americans together to strengthen our communities.” Since then, more than 1.3 million Americans have served in communities across America.  

On Inauguration Day 2001, President George W. Bush called on Americans to “be citizens, not spectators,” and, during the traditional meeting that afternoon at the White House, President Clinton asked President Bush to continue to support AmeriCorps. He did, expanding it by 50%. After 9/11, President Bush established the USA Freedom Corps to bolster his call for every American to commit to serving their communities.   

Since the beginning of this republic, our nation’s leaders recognized that tapping the idealism and can-do spirit of its citizens would be the glue that binds us together. It’s not a partisan concept – it’s in the very DNA of this country.   

When I had the honor of being part of the first class of the Presidential Leadership Scholars Program (PLS), I was struck by the same sense of cooperation and service. PLS invests in leaders who are making a difference in their communities, across the country, and around the world. Like AmeriCorps, PLS demonstrates that by working together across the things that divide us, we can “form a more perfect union.” 

AmeriCorps has been bringing Americans together to make a difference in the lives of ordinary Americans for 30 years. It has never been more needed than it is today. We must strengthen – and expand – the national treasure that is AmeriCorps so that future generations of Americans are challenged and given the opportunity to serve.