Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson welcomed the first group of 20 VISTA volunteers, saying, “Your pay will be low; the conditions of your labor will also be difficult. But you will have the satisfaction of leading a great national effort, and you will have the ultimate reward which comes to those who serve their fellow man.” Those words hold true today as we plan the 50th anniversary event, and last fall celebrated the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps. Today, VISTA is a part of the AmeriCorps program.
This week congressional budget committees are considering a dramatic reduction (about one-third) to the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which operates AmeriCorps, the Senior Corps, and other community-building initiatives. The proposed budget for fiscal year 2016 would cripple the ability to fulfill unmet community needs. The cuts are disproportionate. A wise budget would increase the opportunities for service and get us back on track to meet the goals set in the Kennedy Service America Act of 2009: 250,000 members a year by 2017.
These cuts mean fewer students mentored, fewer veterans benefiting from job training, and fewer boots on the ground in communities recovering and rebuilding after natural disasters.
In Minnesota, here are just some examples of the public work done by volunteers and supported by CNCS: In southern Minnesota, AmeriCorps members are coaches and champions for early childhood school readiness; in Minneapolis Public Schools, members are tutoring middle-school students; in multiple sites throughout the state, the Green Corps is providing education and promoting “green living” strategies; the Reading and Math Corps are helping students succeed in school; and the Opportunity Corps is assisting individuals with economic barriers to become more self-sufficient.
There would be an impact on the Minnesota Senior Corps as well. In 2014, 13,717 Minnesota volunteers served. Foster Grandparents made a lasting difference in the lives of children and youth, Senior Companions supported elderly individuals who have difficulty with daily tasks, and RSVP volunteers strengthened our communities in many ways.
At Hamline University, we encourage our students to serve. In the fall, we hold a fair so students can see the many ways they can give back to the community and make a difference. Each year, my first-year students have a conversation with Harris Wofford, an adviser to President John F. Kennedy and former CEO of CNCS, and after hearing Harris, they ask the right question, “Where will I serve?” and not “Should I serve?”
We should be creating more opportunities for people of all ages to serve.
Visiting with our Minnesota delegation, I am very pleased to report that national service is not a partisan issue, and they view service as a responsible citizenship. We should join together in letting our members know that now is the time to say “No” to the cut in funding for CNCS, and “Yes” to fulfilling the Kennedy Act.
Jim Scheibel, a former mayor of St. Paul, is Professor of Practice in the Management, Marketing and Public Administration Department, Hamline University. He is a former director of both AmeriCorps VISTA and the Senior Corps.
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