... regardless of your political leanings.
First I will say, I am somewhat ignorant when it comes to politics, I know enough to know I am not democrat or republican, because both sides support things I do not really support and/or ignore things that I think should not be ignored. I say this as kind a scapegoat, because I do not identify with a particular party, and am a little ignorant when it comes to things political, I am not aware of or do not notice any political issues attached to the thing which is AmeriCorps. From my perspective, because of the wind array of programs and non-profits AmeriCorps is involved in, it transcends party lines. This is not to say certain programs and non-profits which have AmeriCorps volunteers are not political or are not “left” or “right,” some programs are very much those things, but there are “left” programs as well as “right” ones and ones that may identify mostly with republican ideals and those who identify with the ideals of the democrat.
Alright, enough of political mumblings. My “credentials” as someone whom can speak of AmeriCorps, I was a part of the Emergency Response Team at AmeriCorps Saint Louis for an 11 month term starting in September of 2010. In this program I served over 2000 hours of national service doing conservation work, wildfire fighting, and disaster relief. Since then, I have periodically researched many AmeriCorps programs, because I wanted to serve another year, and have almost served a second term twice. I was unable to serve with both because the non-profits had funding issues which caused them no longer be able to have AmeriCorps volunteers.
People oftentimes most simply explain what AmeriCorps is by saying “It's like a domestic Peace Corps,” and sometimes if I know the people asking are not that interested, I will say this, too. But, honestly, I don't know enough about the Peace Corps to really compare the two. I think the most clear, yet simple, explanation is: AmeriCorps is a program which essentially provides modestly paid internships working with non-profits and public agencies, which, in turn, provides those non-profits and agencies with much needed free or partially free labor. I will go into more detail about what AmeriCorps is about in the following paragraphs and, while doing that, tried to convey why I think AmeriCorps is important to all of us.
This is very much as outsiders view, but from what I have learned from public school teachers and researching various teaching techniques, our public schools are less and less providing opportunities for experiential learning; which is one reason I think AmeriCorps is becoming increasingly important, because many of the programs are essentially one long hands-on learning experience consisting of structured training and direct application of learned skills and ideas. Through the program you choose, you can also gain exposure to a wide variety of fields to see if you are interested in pursuing them as a career, they allow you to make connections in those fields, and gain valuable experience, which can then help you break into the workforce in those areas. The program I was a part of granted me exposure to three career paths I thought I may be interested in pursuing, and allowed me to rule them out for various reasons without first having gone to school for a number of years specifically for those paths, only to find I could not or did not want to pursue them.
For those who are opposed to illegal immigrants receiving so many of the same advantages citizens receive, AmeriCorps will appeal to you in that it requires that you are a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, or lawful permanent resident to join. At the same time, for those who love the fact that America is a mixing pot of different nationalities, it also fosters diversity and understanding. The program I was with had a few first generation Americans and people with many different cultural heritages and backgrounds.
I know some people feel that the government gives too many “hand-outs” while others feel our government isn't doing enough to help those in need. This is yet another area where both types should feel they can support AmeriCorps, because though it does provide many goods and services through the programs it is associated with, many programs are also very focused on educating those who are largely dependent. Some programs strive to teach healthy eating (so they better use the food benefits they have) and try to develop and encourage community gardens so people can grow some of their own food. Other programs teach literacy, life skills, and many other things. In other words, though some programs are giving hand-outs, they or others are also striving to give the dependent the skills they need to be less dependent, or at least to be more responsible with that they are receiving.
AmeriCorps is also about developing leaders. I earlier compared service with AmeriCorps to an internship, but do not get the idea that they are just gophers doing mundane tasks. Within my program, at the Joplin, MO tornado we had a couple members who were put in charge with developing a missing persons' database, one put in charge of the volunteer reception center that dealt with thousands of volunteers, another who was largely in charge of coordinating the fieldwork of many of those volunteers, and other members deeply involved with key components of disaster relief. When our crew was on a wildfire in MO or IL, we were treated much the same as the other wildfire fighters and had as much responsibility in controlling the blaze as others. I do have to admit, MO and IL fires are not as intense or vast as Western fires, but we were considered a national resource that could respond to those fires as well, if need be.
The leadership structure in my program was particularly designed to develop leaders; we had groups of 5 or 10 which would go out for a week or two at a time to do conservation work and, once us “first-years” were established, different ones of us were given the responsibility of leading these groups. This gave us the unique opportunity to be lead by some of our teammates and then later lead those same teammates, giving us a chance to see different group dynamics, to learn about ourselves and each other. I learned about myself that I do not really like to be the leader, but I do like to be in an advisory role close to the leader, calling their attention to areas or factors they may not have noticed and helping them to work through problems.
From looking at the position descriptions of other programs and talking to various non-profits about those programs, I know many others, besides the program I was a part of, also have a focus on developing leaders.
Finally, AmeriCorps is about making responsible, service minded, citizens who are involved in the welfare of their community, their environment, and their world. Many AmeriCorps alumni go into public service jobs and continue to volunteer in their communities.
I will finish by saying, it is true I was only a part of one AmeriCorps program, so I am taking liberties talking about the good of the others. I know there is probably waste, that some programs do not use their volunteers well, and that some people who volunteer to do AmeriCorps may not be serious about it and so waste resources. But I will also say, during my time of service, I came in contact with quite a few other AmeriCorps programs and, while some individuals were not hardworking, many of them were. Also, since my term of service, I have researched quite a few non-profits and something I repeatedly come across is that some of their staff inevitably were a part of AmeriCorps in the past.
What do I want you to do with this information? I'm not sure. I just want you to have it and, if you ever hear that the program is being done away with, keep in mind that in its 20 years of existence “more than 800,000 AmeriCorps members have contributed more than 1 billion hours in service across America.”* This is service to non-profits, schools, public agencies, community and faith-based groups; this is service to our citizens; this is service to our future.
I will end with the AmeriCorps pledge:
I will get things done for America - to make our people safer, smarter, and healthier.
I will bring Americans together to strengthen our communities.
Faced with apathy, I will take action.
Faced with conflict, I will seek common ground.
Faced with adversity, I will persevere.
I will carry this commitment with me this year and beyond.
I am an AmeriCorps member, and I will get things done.
*Taken from the AmeriCorps website.