AmeriCorps at 20: Called to serve, at home

  • Article by: SONDRA SAMUELS
  • Updated: June 8, 2014 - 7:53 PM

20 years ago, volunteers accepted the challenge to transform communities across the United States.

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Former President Bill Clinton

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‘Peace Corps Meet AmeriCorps! You Have Served Your Country Over Seas, Now Come Home and Serve.”

It was 1994. These words, in bold type, were faxed to our Peace Corps office in Botswana, Africa, were I was serving as a volunteer. The words seemed to rise from the page and call to me directly, filling me with a sense of mission.

And the timing couldn’t have been better. It was the very last day of my two-year Peace Corps service. I had worked with local villagers to start small businesses. Now, I was on my way home.

It has been said: “Never underestimate the power of words to change the world.” I’d add, “or to change a generation.” After all, it was the words of our 35th president, John F. Kennedy — spoken to my parents’ generation and transmitted through time to my mine — that had compelled me to join the Peace Corps: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

With these words, the Peace Corps was conceived in hopes that a generation of young Americans would selflessly look beyond themselves and volunteer to work in developing countries, to foster a spirit of understanding, mutuality and brotherhood. Since then (1961), more than 215,000 Americans have volunteered in 139 countries worldwide.

Today there is a new wave of American generosity through volunteerism, not abroad but in needy communities all around our country, called AmeriCorps. It was the vision of our 42nd president, Bill Clinton, who today visits Minnesota, which spawned AmeriCorps, our country’s broadest national service movement.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps, a program of the federal Corporation for National and Community Service, an agency whose mission is to improve lives, strengthen communities, and foster civic engagement through service and volunteering. None of this would have been possible without then-Minnesota Sens. Paul Wellstone and Dave Durenberger, who introduced the original legislation that became the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993.

Twenty years ago, the words “Peace Corps Meet AmeriCorps!” compelled me, along with throngs of other returning Peace Corps volunteers, to answer our country’s call to service — at home.

Minnesota is home to several outstanding AmeriCorps programs that are changing lives here and in other communities across the country. For example, Minnesota Reading Corps is the largest state AmeriCorps program in the nation, serving more than 35,000 children in eight states.

Through Minnesota AmeriCorps, members dedicate a year of their lives to do things like helping children become ready for kindergarten and to become proficient readers by third grade; helping first-generation students access and succeed in college; mentoring youth to reduce high school dropout rates; building affordable housing; providing job training, and protecting the environment in communities across the state.

The AmeriCorps movement has transformed generations and the course of individual lives. As an alumna, I am now leading a movement to end multigenerational poverty, using education as a lever, through the Northside Achievement Zone. And there are more than 800,000 more like me who have been transforming their communities across America, still taking action based on the words of Clinton more than 20 years ago. They were true then and are even truer now:

“Today we are taking a stand in this country for the proposition that if we challenge people to serve and we give them a chance to fulfill their abilities, more and more and more we will all understand that we must go forward together. This is the profoundest lesson of this whole endeavor. And it will be the great legacy of the wonderful people who make it come alive.”

For information on becoming a Minnesota AmeriCorps member, visit www.serveminnesota.org.

 

Sondra Samuels is president and CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone.

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