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20 Years of Volunteering to Get Things Done for America

It is fitting that the day after the National Day of Service and Remembrance we will celebrate the power of volunteering in a wholly different way. September 12, 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps, a strength of the volunteer movement in the United States.

Often described as the Peace Corps within the U.S., AmeriCorps engages more than 75,000 Americans in intensive service each year at nonprofits, schools, public agencies, and community and faith-based groups across the country. Since the program’s founding in 1994, more than 900,000 AmeriCorps members have contributed more than 1.2 billion hours in service across America while tackling pressing problems and mobilizing millions of volunteers for the organizations they serve.

The VISTA program, created in 1965, was a precursor to and is now part of the AmeriCorps program. As I wrote back in June, United Ways have brought VISTA members on board to address school readiness, summer learning or chronic absence from school.  For example, Paige Erwin and Brittany Cannon, VISTAs with United Way of Suncoast in Tampa, Florida, adapted a STEM and reading curriculum for 23 Summer Care sites for an estimated 2,600 children. These sites also participated in the Summer Reading Challenge and took advantage of myON, a new online reading tool.  The Sulphur Springs YMCA, a United Way Suncoast Summer Care site, won the Challenge with nearly 200 children reading more than 1,200 books and browsing more than 2,400 books over a total of 258 hours. The winner was announced at a celebration the VISTAs helped organize, the TORCH Summer Reading Explosion at Tampa’s Museum of Science & Industry, where 125 children took part in reading and science demonstrations.

VISTAs Judy Dahlke and Leslie Van Dyke, serving with United Way of Story County in Ames, Iowa, coordinated a summer food and enrichment program that impacted more than 100 students, 79% of whom qualify for free-and-reduced lunch. Not only did attendance improve this year -- to an average of 99 of the 110 students -- but the program also expanded from three to six weeks and served almost 6,000 meals. Students also benefited from afternoon sessions which featured highly engaging, research-based reading and STEM curricula implemented by the VISTAs. Leslie and Judy recruited and directed a corps of 137 volunteers from the community to interact with the children in small groups, serve food, and assist in coordinating. Teachers are pleased with the programs, and students and families are building positive connotations for their school, both as a place for learning and as the center of the community.

These are but two examples of the energy and ingenuity of VISTAs and other AmeriCorps volunteers serving throughout the country. When these volunteers are sworn in before their year of service, part of the oath is “I will get things done for America to make our people safer, smarter and healthier.”  Even if you can’t serve through AmeriCorps, you can support the anniversary celebration by pledging to make a difference in your community and spreading the word through social media.

Here’s to those who take the pledge and deliver on it, and to the next 20 years of AmeriCorps and United Way tapping the power of our greatest asset – people who act on their belief that everyone can advance the common good.