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National service movement vital to safety net

Washington, D.C. — The tension on Capitol Hill was noticeably stressful as scores of citizens from each of the 50 states converged on Congress on a rainy late-September day.

Whatever the final outcome of the federal plans to shore up ailing financial markets, the volunteer advocates told members and staffs of the U.S. House and Senate on Sept. 25 that, in the coming months and years, more and more fellow citizens would need the social “safety net” fortified by the national service movement. 

While volunteerism has been a centerpiece for many Americans since the nation’s founding, for the last 15 years some 500,000 people have been called into unique service through the Corporation for National and Community Service in the widely regarded AmeriCorps program. Overall, more than one in four Americans volunteer, including growing numbers of teens, midlife adults and seniors. The Twin Cities area has consistently ranked number one with 40 percent of the population involved.

Minnesotans have been particularly successful in the creation of state policy-centered AmeriCorps initiatives, including the Minnesota Reading Corps aimed at “at risk” young learners between the ages of 3 and 9. Literacy, long understood to be the linchpin of early learning, is the primary education focus through third grade and absolutely essential to student learning thereafter. According to Minnesota’s own assessments taken upon kindergarten entry, more than half of our 5-year-olds are not adequately prepared to learn to read.
The reading corps currently in the field in Minnesota is helping in the effort to close the so-called “achievement gap” with a two-year initiative that is reaching 15,000 youngsters with necessary literacy skill development. Minnesotans offered the 10-member Congressional delegation information about the kids selected, the sites served in each of the state’s eight districts, the public-private $15 million funding streams, the one-on-one methodology applied to each child and the 80 percent success rate.

In AmeriCorps programs funded in Minnesota through its oversight group, ServeMinnesota, some $10 million was leveraged last year, the fourth-highest in the national competition,  involving 800 in the field and trained AmeriCorps members working on a dozen projects including Admission Possible, the Minnesota Math Corps and the Community Technology Empowerment Project. By emphasizing “innovation, investment and alignment,” the organization has directed money and people power to programs that serve as community catalysts for positive social change.

If national service organizers have their way, the bipartisan Serve America Act expected to pass in 2009 — co-sponsored in the Senate by presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain — will dramatically expand the resources available in Minnesota and elsewhere through service programs that will emphasize citizens of all ages giving a year or more of service to help change the world.

How do the presidential candidates view service efforts? Check out Barack Obama‘s “Universal voluntary public service” and John McCain‘s “Renewing America’s civic purpose.”

Chuck Slocum, president of The Williston Group, a management consulting firm, was part of the Minnesota delegation attending the Sept. 25 “Voices for National Service” gathering in Washington, D.C. More information is available through Voices for National Service or ServeMinnesota.

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