National Service – Bringing out the Best in America

May 15, 2023

Points of Light is proud to welcome AmeriCorps CEO Michael D. Smith as a featured guest at the 2023 Points of Light Conference. Learn more about him and the exciting lineup we have planned. Register today!

In 1839, Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States and reported back to his French contemporaries that Americans are a people who “confronted their problems and addressed them,” and that civic participation is foundational to their form of democracy.

Nearly 200 years later, as we navigate life in the shadow of a global pandemic that pulled back the curtain on deep and lasting inequities, Tocqueville’s words still ring true.

American people continue to show up for their neighbors, continue to volunteer for causes that matter and continue to embrace national service to not only strengthen their communities—but also improve their own lives–whether that’s by gaining skills that give you a leg up in your career, earning money for college or to pay back student loans, decreasing isolation, increasing longevity or improving physical and mental health.

As the CEO of AmeriCorps, the federal agency for national service and volunteering, I witness this belief in the power of service every day, from all corners of the country. Each year AmeriCorps provides nearly $1 billion in funds to support hundreds of thousands of AmeriCorps members and AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers at nonprofits and municipalities that provide evidence-based solutions for children and families in nearly 40,000 locations.

In the period immediately following the earliest cases of COVID-19 in the US, Tocqueville would have seen that 19th-century American spirit of service alive and thriving. At one of our darkest moments, AmeriCorps members, along with countless volunteers, pivoted and provided vital support to more than 12.3 million Americans, including 2.5 million people at pandemic vaccination sites. And while these members and volunteers were critical, we knew we needed to come up with bigger solutions, which is why, in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we launched Public Health AmeriCorps to create a pipeline to fill the enormous public health worker shortage, drive more equitable health outcomes, and create career opportunities for people with varying levels of formal education and experience.

The pandemic did not slow the challenges arising from climate change. In the wake of fires, floods, hurricanes and tornados in recent years, AmeriCorps members serving with NCCC and FEMA Corps have stayed on the ground aiding emergency management response, assisting residents, removing debris and rebuilding homes. The work is not easy, but these members are tireless, well trained and eager to help build communities back better than before disaster. Recently, AmeriCorps members deployed to Florida following Hurricane Ian’s catastrophic damages, from storm surges, flash floods and tornado outbreaks. Members provided urgent help—mucking out homes, temporary roof repair, removing hazardous trees and supporting FEMA Voluntary Agency Liaisons.

As students and teachers converted to virtual learning in 2020, AmeriCorps members and AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers were right alongside them, stepping up and showing up during one of the most challenging times in recent memory. As schools continue to grapple with learning loss, overcrowded classrooms, and growing childhood mental health challenges, AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers serving with the Foster Grandparents Program support students, teachers and families in providing the care and attention children need to thrive. Volunteers like Guillermo Rivera Tricoche, who serves as a Foster Grandparent volunteer with Puerto Rico’s Cerebral Palsy Center. Guillermo supports children with developmental disabilities, cerebral palsy, neurological disorders and multiple severe disabilities to live their best lives. His service helps students in underserved communities integrate into the school, offering tutoring and custom curated curriculums such as social work, physical therapy, speech-language pathology, special education, summer camps and more.

Research and results show that national service is one of the most effective tools we have as a country to build unity, open doors to education and employment and drive social change. In a world that can feel like we’re being torn further apart, or that our problems are eclipsing our promise, AmeriCorps is bringing us together. When you’re joining together to rebuild after disaster, to teach a child to read, to provide food to neighbors in need, ideology tends to go out the window and barriers fade. Through service, we see one another’s humanity.

During the pandemic we saw the number of volunteers decline who were serving formally with a nonprofit as so many community-based organizations had to shut their doors or work in a reduced or virtual capacity. But 60.7 million showed up anyway. And the numbers of individuals that helped their neighbors—such as going to the grocery store for an elderly neighbor or creating a learning pod for children of essential workers and first responders—stayed strong and steady at pre-pandemic levels.

Tocqueville was right. There is something special about this country of ours. Everyday Americans of all ages, races and walks of like go out of their way to reach out, give back and lift up others. Our nation is stronger as a result—and the individuals who serve are stronger as well. There’s a role for everyone to play:

  • If you are a corporation, consider joining Employers of National Service and partnering with nonprofit organizations and state service commissions to provide matching dollars to increase benefits for national service members.
  • If you are a university, consider joining Schools of National Service to attract students with real-world service experience to your degree programs.
  • If you are running a volunteer center, such as a foodbank or a shelter, AmeriCorps can be a force multiplier to help you reach more people. Consider applying for a grant through AmeriCorps VISTA to bring on additional staff capacity or the Volunteer Generation Fund to help recruit, retain and manage volunteers.
  • Nonprofit organizations of any size can consider applying for an AmeriCorps State and National grant to make an even bigger impact on your mission.
  • And if you’re an individual who cares about your community and making the world a better place, consider serving as an AmeriCorps member or AmeriCorps Seniors volunteer.

Michael D. Smith is CEO of AmeriCorps and a featured guest at the 2023 Points of Light Conference. Learn more about him and the exciting lineup we have planned. Register today!

Michael D. Smith