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A Presidential Spotlight on National Service

by Wendy Spencer

A few years ago, a young teenager named Chris was living the street life in Austin, Texas, a high school dropout dealing drugs and facing bleak prospects for the future. While spending time at a juvenile detention center, two Senior Corps volunteers offered Chris love, support, and consistent finger-wagging, encouraging him to take his life in a new direction. Today, thanks to AmeriCorps, Chris has graduated from high school, gained valuable work skills, and found his passion in life -- becoming a wildland firefighter.

Chris Guzman speaks during the National Conference on Volunteering and Service in Washington, DC, on June 20, 2013. (Corporation for National and Community Service Photo)

When I met Chris a few months ago, I was deeply impressed with his determination to succeed and his newfound sense of self-respect. He was grateful for the mentors in his life, and the second chance he was given through national service.

If he had the chance, I'm sure Chris would thank a fellow Texan whose actions more than 20 years ago paved the way for the opportunities he was provided through national service.

President George H.W. Bush has often said that, "Any definition of a successful life includes service to others," and he has lived out those words to the fullest. From enlisting in the Navy at age 18, to serving as a congressman, ambassador, vice president, and president, he has devoted his entire life to public service.

One of President Bush's most enduring contributions was to service and volunteering. In his 1989 Inaugural Address, when he uttered the words "a thousand points of light," he didn't just coin an inspiring phrase, he launched a movement. By signing the first National Service Act in 1990, he ushered in the modern era of national service, setting the stage for the creation of AmeriCorps and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which I am honored to lead today.

For decades, presidents of both parties have invested in national service as a cost-effective way to tap the ingenuity and can-do spirit of the American people. They have recognized that service is an enduring American value, that our nation is stronger when people serve, and that government has a key role to play in asking citizens to serve and creating opportunities for those who answer the call.

This proud tradition of bipartisan support for national service was on vivid display last week, when President Obama welcomed President Bush to the White House. They joined together to present the 5,000th Daily Point of Light Award to an Iowa couple who started a nonprofit that has provided millions of free meals to hungry children around the world.

At this extraordinary event, President Obama unveiled important new steps to strengthen national service in America. He announced a task force with representatives from agencies across the government to identify additional ways that the public and private sectors can partner to support national service and volunteering.

The task force builds on the bipartisan spirit of the Serve America Act and the success of innovative partnerships our agency has launched in the past year.

AmeriCorps members help with a cleanup project at New York's Rockaway Beach during a 2013 AmreiCorps Week project on March 16, 2013. (Corporation for National and Community Service Photo)

One of those is FEMA Corps, a new 1,600 member AmeriCorps program solely devoted to disaster response and recovery. FEMA Corps strengthens disaster capacity, prepares young people for emergency management careers, and saves significant taxpayer dollars. FEMA Corps members provided invaluable service in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and recent tornadoes in the Midwest and have developed innovative ways to serve disaster survivors.

Another is School Turnaround AmeriCorps, a partnership with the Department of Education that will bring 650 new AmeriCorps members into some of our lowest-performing schools this fall, where they will work to boost student academic achievement, attendance, and high school graduation rates.

And soon STEM AmeriCorps will place hundreds of AmeriCorps members in nonprofits across the country to mobilize STEM professionals to inspire young people to excel in science, technology, engineering and math to build the pipeline for future STEM careers.

When AmeriCorps was created 20 years ago, Congress built it as a public-private partnership, with strong buy-in from corporations, foundations, and other funders. The task force will build on this by identifying new ways to work with the private sector and use technology to increase participation in service.

The task force is the latest example of the growing momentum for national service, including the Aspen Institute summit last month that brought together 250 leaders to call for large-scale civilian national service. As the President said on Monday, "In times of tight budgets and some very tough problems, we know that the greatest resource we have is the limitless energy and ingenuity of our citizens."

National service is a low-cost, high yield investment. It helps tackle our most pressing problems, strengthens communities, and unites us as one people. It also gives Americans the chance to transform their lives - getting career skills, earning money for college, and increasing hope for the future. Just ask Chris.

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post website on July 26, 2013. Wendy Spencer is CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and other service programs. Spencer will co-chair the National Service Task Force along with Cecilia Muñoz, Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

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