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Community Service Alters Lives

by Patrick A. Corvington

A year ago, Detroiter Constancio Yanas was a high school dropout with bleak prospects. Today, armed with his GED, work skills and money for college he earned in AmeriCorps, he has a construction job and will be starting community college this winter.

In 2007, college grad Shane Bernardo was laid off from his auto industry job in Detroit. Through AmeriCorps VISTA, Shane found his passion for working with young people, and today he oversees a program that gets students to clear out and beautify blighted city lots.

In tough economic times, Michiganians are using national service to make a difference in their communities and their own lives.

Since 1994, more than 18,000 Michiganians have taken AmeriCorps's pledge to "get things done," serving 25 million hours in the state's hardest-hit cities and rural areas — mentoring at-risk youths, building homes, caring for the elderly and helping struggling students graduate.

They are part of a larger national service family that includes older Americans sharing life skills through Senior Corps and students learning the values of citizenship through service-learning. You don't hear their stories on the nightly news, but every day they head out, quietly and without fanfare, to improve lives and strengthen communities.

Too often the spotlight shines on Michigan's problems.

From Michigan's foundation sector, one of the strongest in the nation, to its pioneering work in youth philanthropy, to its state government leadership for service, Michigan has a strong tradition of giving back and seeing solutions.

That tradition remains strong even in tough economic times. Last year, 2.2 million Michiganians volunteered, providing service valued at more than $6.4 billion — a powerful investment of human capital that is helping address tough community challenges. The state's volunteer rate went up last year, demonstrating that Michiganians are tilting toward problems, not away from them.

Given the many social needs facing our communities — and the growing interest in service by Americans of all ages — this is a critical moment for the voluntary sector. The Obama administration is deeply committed to expanding the role of service in solving community problems. It is our belief that service isn't secondary to or separate from achieving our priorities; it's essential to achieving them.

That belief is increasingly shared by bipartisan elected officials nationwide, including Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, who recently unveiled a comprehensive plan to expand the use of volunteers to support education, neighborhood development and public safety in Detroit.

Last year, we worked with bipartisan leaders in Congress to pass the Serve America Act, ushering in a new era of service in our country. The act expands service opportunities for Americans of all ages and targets service in tackling critical national challenges, including the dropout crisis, poverty, and support for veterans and military families.

I will join Michigan's foundation and national service leaders at their annual meetings to discuss how to build on the momentum to help solve Michigan problems. A key part of that strategy is investing in AmeriCorps — the human capital of the solutions business.

The Serve America Act has set a goal of tripling AmeriCorps by 2017. Achieving this growth will require stepped up support from foundations and the corporate sector to stretch the federal investment. Given its strong philanthropic streak, Michigan can be a model for the nation.

AmeriCorps is a low-cost, high-yield investment. It helps Michigan tackle its most pressing problems, keeps residents in the state, prepares future leaders and strengthens communities. It also gives Michiganians the chance to transform their lives — getting work skills, earning money for college and increasing hope for the future. Just ask Shane or Constancio.

Patrick A. Corvington is CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service. This op-ed originally appeared in the Detroit News on November 11, 2010.

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