AmeriCorps as a pathway out of poverty [Commentary]

Connecting the city's poor with volunteer work helps the community and the worker

September 24, 2014|By Dana Stein

AmeriCorps, which engages over 75,000 Americans in service projects annually, turned 20 this month. Since the program's inception, over 900,000 AmeriCorps members have contributed over 1 billion hours in service — including 4,000 AmeriCorps members in Baltimore through Civic Works, a non-profit I founded in 1993 to strengthen Baltimore's communities through education, skills development and community service.

Too many young people in Baltimore struggle to stay on track in school and build the essential workplace skills needed to gain meaningful employment. Civic Works' AmeriCorps members have worked for the past 20 years to turn that around, tutoring and mentoring close to 40,000 students, growing nearly 60,000 pounds of fresh produce, planting 25,000 trees, making energy improvements to nearly 6,000 households, and converting over 200 vacant lots into community green spaces.

But there is still a great need for more in our community and elsewhere throughout the country — and a supply of willing volunteers to help. More than 582,000 people applied to become AmeriCorps members in 2012, but there were only 82,500 available slots. Significantly expanding the AmeriCorps program, which rewards volunteers with a modest living allowance and an education award, could lead to a cost-effective way to combat the ills of poverty while encouraging higher education for our young people.

It's not just the city that benefits. Building skills through community service has a proven track record of success. A recent study shows that volunteering improves the likelihood of employment by 27 percent, and for the unemployed, that likelihood jumps to 51 percent (Baltimore's unemployment rate was 9.4 percent as of June). Close to 70 percent of AmeriCorps members stated that their service experiences provided them with an advantage in finding a job. Jobs skills training through volunteering is a powerful tool we can effectively use to fight unemployment.

AmeriCorps can also provide a path to education. In Baltimore, statistics show that almost 20 percent of adults do not have high school credentials, and nearly two-thirds of those without a diploma are not working. Those who are employed earn an average of only $20,000 per year.

But the percentage of AmeriCorps members with a high school diploma or GED grew from 57 percent to 82 percent during the course of the program, according to one study, meaning that many AmeriCorps members obtain high school credentials during their tenure. In 2013-14, 72 percent of Civic Works AmeriCorps members who started the program without high school credentials either obtained their GED or graduated from high school during their term of service.

AmeriCorps members benefit from the program, and the communities being served benefit greatly as well.

However, these numbers only tell part of the story. The real story comes from people whose lives were changed by AmeriCorps. Kristopher, a Civic Works AmeriCorps member for the past two years, strongly believes that this program changed his life by forcing him to step out of his comfort zone.

"I gained valuable construction experience and mentoring from my supervisors. I learned the correct ways to operate power tools. I was also exposed to possible career fields that I previously didn't know were available to me," Kristopher said. "Understanding how AmeriCorps and Civic Works positively affect the community allows me to see why service is so important to rebuilding our city."

There are hundreds of young people just like Kristopher in Baltimore who are profoundly impacted by this program.

The data, and the stories behind the data, demonstrate the power of combining education, skills development and community service. AmeriCorps creates real opportunities for meaningful employment while moving communities forward. The 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps is an important milestone. Let's take the knowledge we have gained over 20 years to expand this program and create more opportunities to serve, around the nation and right here in Baltimore.

Dana Stein is the founder and executive director of Civic Works, a non-profit dedicated to strengthening Baltimore's communities through education, skills development and community service. His email is dstein@civicworks.com.


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