In a few terrifying moments on April 27 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and on May 23 in Joplin, Mo., life forever changed. Devastating tornadoes struck both communities, leaving behind lives lost, homes destroyed and communities permanently changed.
Within hours and over the following hard days, local citizens joined forces with HandsOn Network affiliates and other volunteer reception centers, AmeriCorps and VISTA members, RSVP volunteers and thousands of compassionate Americans to begin the recovery and rebuilding efforts. Volunteers and national service members delivered clean water. They transported the injured and the elderly to medical facilities. They managed call centers that logged thousands of daily inquiries, guiding those who needed assistance to social services and assigning volunteers to specific projects. John Gomperts, director of AmeriCorps, wrote an account of his visit to Joplin. The article showcases the extraordinary volunteer response to the May 22 tornado and the key volunteer management role played by AmeriCorps in the wake of natural disasters.
The framework for this kind of rapid and professional volunteer response to disaster is supported through the Corporation for National and Community Service and its critical programs including AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and the Volunteer Generation Fund. These programs are particularly important at a time of national austerity and challenge because they call upon our most important and renewable resource – our citizenry – to meet the critical needs of our communities.
Since the Great Depression, the United States has offered willing Americans a chance to be a part of national volunteer programs that have immediate and lasting impacts in communities across the nation. We see that impact in the three billion trees planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1933 and 1942, and we see it now in the rising test scores of students in the classrooms of Teach For America AmeriCorps teachers.
We must convey to Congress that now is the time to redouble these efforts. We saw in both Joplin and Tuscaloosa an unprecedented numbers of spontaneous, unaffiliated volunteers – at one point in Joplin the number was in excess of 15,000. Resources like the Volunteer Generation Fund are desperately needed to screen, train, deploy and manage community volunteers to meet critical needs.
I hope that many of you will join the Save Service efforts on August 10 to meet with members of Congress while they are in their home districts to tell them your stories of volunteer service. A call-in day will be held on September 15 to reinforce our message. Urge them to support the Corporation for National and Community Service and the full range of service and volunteer programs that make a difference every day in American communities, both in response to natural disasters and in addressing the day-to-day challenges we face in education, in economic opportunity and in environmental stewardship.
At the National Conference on Service and Volunteering in New Orleans last month, Gov. Haley Barbour recalled the waves of volunteers who came to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina to help. Over the course of four years following the hurricane, 400,000 volunteers made the journey south to the Gulf coast, many of them returning two and three times with their families to be a part of the region’s revival. He has seen and he knows the power of service.
“In our country,” said Gov. Barbour, “there are tens of millions of people who want to be your ally, who want to help, who want to get the chance.”
Let’s make sure we tell Congress we want our country to continue to offer that chance to those who want to serve by maintaining strong levels of federal funding for AmeriCorps, the Volunteer Generation Fund and all national and community service programs.
Yours in service,
CEO, Points of Light Institute