Twenty years ago, 500 young Americans gathered at the White House to be sworn in, representing the 20,000 Americans who would become the first class of AmeriCorps. Excited to celebrate a day that honored a new idea of national service, the day took a turn of uncertainty when early in morning a pilot crashed a two-seater plane into the White House grounds, and the expansive South Lawn where the ceremony was to be held was off limits. Determined to honor these young people, despite the tragedy, the Clinton Administration improvised and moved the event to the North Portico of the White House – possibly the first and last time a major Presidential event was held on the Pennsylvania side of the White House.
Those of us who were fortunate enough to have worked on the AmeriCorps legislation with President Clinton watched the ceremony with excitement, yet still felt a wave of uncertainty that went well beyond the odd circumstances of the day. While we believed that a national service program had the potential to transform our country, we really didn't know if young people want to spend a year in service in exchange for a living allowance and education award; we didn’t know if nonprofit organizations would want to engage them; and we didn’t know what difference would it really make.
As it turned out, people did want to serve and agencies did want to sponsor them. Today, the supply of young (and older) people applying far outstrips available positions. Some programs have 20 or more applicants per position and almost all are oversubscribed. Similarly, demand from organizations wanting to host AmeriCorps members goes well beyond the number of positions that can be awarded, and many organizations provide 50 to even 100 percent of the funding needed.
While the demand to serve and to host members is striking, what AmeriCorps members have done for our country is even more remarkable. Through programs like JumpStart, Minnesota Reading Corps, Reading Partners, City Year, and College Possible, members are helping students learn to read on grade level, reduce high school drop out rates, and help thousands of low-income youth apply and succeed in college. Members have also helped families and communities recover after natural disasters such Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and deadly tornadoes in Joplin. Still, others have played important roles in conservation, built housing for low-income families, offered free legal assistance to struggling families, and helped people navigate the health care and social services systems when they had nowhere else to turn. Each and every day, tens of thousands of corps members are touching lives and changing communities.
While it's easy to track the impact of AmeriCorps against community needs, the impact those who serve is equally dramatic but far harder to quantify. From the ranks of AmeriCorps alumni have come some of the nation's quiet leaders, who bring their transformational experience with them as they work in schools, nonprofits, government agencies, and businesses. People like Lisa Renee Tatum, a 1998 National Civilian Community Corps members, who did logistics for the American Red Cross during her service year and went on to become the senior manager for disaster preparedness at the Volunteer Center of North Texas. Or, Leroy “JR” LaPlante, a 2009 member of the Cheyenne river Sioux Tribe, who served as an AmeriCorps Legal Fellow and is now the first Secretary of Tribal Relations in his home state of South Dakota, appointed by the Governor. And like Dayne Walling, one of the first AmeriCorps members, who is serving his second term as Mayor of Flint, Michigan, and is an active Cities of Service member.
When we launched the program with some uncertainty, we didn’t imagine the multiplier effect that corps members would have. Hundreds of thousands of AmeriCorps members have recruited and led millions of volunteers to work alongside them, solving some of the biggest problems facing our communities; fulfilling the vision that President Clinton and his administration had when he inaugurated that first AmeriCorps class two decades ago.
This week, a nationwide swearing in ceremony will commemorate the day, 20 years ago, when President Clinton swore in the first AmeriCorps members. He told them, "Service is a spark to rekindle the spirit of democracy in an age of uncertainty … when it is all said and done, it comes down to three simple questions: What is right? What is wrong? And what are we going to do about it? Today you are doing what is right – turning your words into deeds." He asked them to pledge "to get things done for America … this year and beyond." And indeed they have – and they will continue to, we hope, for generations to come.
Leading up to AmeriCorps' 20th anniversary on September 12, 2014, we will be featuring stories of service – from those who helped bring AmeriCorps to life 20 years ago, to individuals who have taken the AmeriCorps pledge and dedicated their lives to creating positive change in their communities. Follow stories of service on our blog.