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Spotlight On AmeriCorps Alumni Service Champions

January 14, 2016

Thanks in part to the hundreds of thousand of AmeriCorps alumni who took took a stand for service, Congress chose to increase funding for the Corporation for National and Community Service late last year! And alums aren’t just speaking up when service is in danger of being cut. For many national service alumni, advocating for AmeriCorps is part of our lifetime of service.

Recently, several alumni were selected as Franklin Project Ambassadors and wrote op-eds on why service matters as part of this program. The Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute’s goal, which the ambassadors support, is to establish a year of full-time national service—a service year—as a cultural expectation, a common opportunity, and a civic rite of passage for every young American. As part of this mission, the Franklin Project worked with AmeriCorps Alums, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the Peace Corps to launch the Employers of National Service initiative in 2014.

Check out how AmeriCorps alumni are leading national service advocacy movements and read blurbs from their op-eds* below!

Nikki_Gusz-headshot_FranklinProjAmbassadorNo Matter Your Destination, Make Service a Part of Your Journey
Nikki Gusz (Teach For America AmeriCorps alum)

Today, there are over 1 million brave Americans on active duty. Yet, in over 20 years of AmeriCorps, the total number of Americans who have served in a civilian capacity hasn’t reached this number. Imagine the possibilities for both local and global societies if there were more opportunities for civilian service.

The chance to confront and solve challenges in health, education, security and the environment could be immense. Not only is there the potential for incredible impact during service year commitments, but also in the skillsets, mindsets and knowledge gained during this time period that service year members are then able to utilize across a lifetime. The Franklin Project aims to unleash the ethos of service across the country. North Carolina, where I live, seems an ideal place to help lead the charge. Read more …

tho biaz 200 by 200How My Year of Service Matured My Head and My Heart
Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz (AmeriCorps HealthCorps alum)

As a recently separated mother of two young children, I became an AmeriCorps HealthCorps member at the age of 32, based on my interest to understand different vantage points of community work. I embarked on my service year with a strong foundation as a teacher with a practice in English Language Learner education and curriculum design, as well as through my graduate degree studies in multicultural education. During my early 30s, I most wanted to understand different ways that low-income women and families were experiencing marginalization, and I wanted to continue expanding my path of service from a deep listening approach, coupled with direct action.

During my AmeriCorps HealthCorps service year I managed a nonprofit clinic for uninsured, low-income and homeless women, and I also served as a health worker with the same population. With each passing month, my head and heart matured while I gained on-the-ground experience. From this new place of empathy, connection, and understanding, I began working to frame my academic research path. Read more …

plata 200 by 200Service: What, Exactly, Is the Point?
Godfrey Plata (Teach For America AmeriCorps alum)

Here’s the thing: As a person of color and a Filipino immigrant, I sometimes cringe when I think of “service.” The first thing I envision is a white adult working in a “third world” country like the Philippines, huddling together with versions of a four-year-old me, darker-skinned and of modest means, kids who might never have the privilege of being able to travel, perform service “for others,” and take selfies as proof. I think of these same tourists returning home, feeling good about themselves for helping “the less fortunate” and going about their lives having been transformed by their experiences. I think of “service,” and I think of an unjust imbalance: forever changing the world views of those who serve while delivering short-term band-aids (emotional, physical or otherwise) to those who are served. Doesn’t that seem twisted — that service can impact those doing the serving more powerfully than those who are purportedly being served?

I don’t want to feel this way about service. I want to stop cringing, especially in Houston. For me, being an ambassador gives me a platform to point at this notion of service benefiting some more than others and say: no, it can’t be just about that. If we’re going to expand service opportunities, we need to ask: What is the impact of service on those who are served? For whom are we expanding service year opportunities? What is the purpose of service?

Click here to continue  reading this article.

panciera 200 by 200A Better Milwaukee Starts with the Right Question
Amanda Panciera (City Year AmeriCorps alum)

I was meant to serve. As the child of a police officer and a paramedic and the grandchild of war veterans, service was in my blood. Caring deeply about others was in my soul. My first word was even “justice.” (This is likely because my German Sheperd puppy was named Justice, but still.)

As a child, my neighborhood friends included retirees Toni and Lynn; I’d ride my big wheel to their front door and stop in for a weekly chat or help out with their rummage sale. I was five. In school, I wanted to raise the most money and bring the most canned goods to help others. As a high school junior, I led a tutoring program at a Waukesha elementary school. I volunteered every summer at a camp for children with muscular dystrophy and started a statewide fundraiser to benefit MDA. I was a community service chair for student council in high school and my sorority in college. I knew how to serve. And yet, despite all of this, it wasn’t until I was a year out of college that I learned about AmeriCorps. Read more …

ericksen 200 by 200.jpgMy Goals are Twofold: Education and Inspiration
Greg Ericksen (AmeriCorps alum & Los Angeles AmeriCorps Alums Chapter Leader)

In August 2003, I packed up my Toyota Tercel with all of my belongings and said farewell to my family and friends. I left home in Ohio and embarked on a cross country journey to Los Angeles — not knowing anyone, or even where I would live — guided only by the simple motto of “Getting things done.” I joined thousands of other people across the country who were making the same sacrifice as I was of dedicating a year of our lives to serve our country in the pursuit of creating a better society.

My narrative and experience as an AmeriCorps member and my year of service is not unique; it’s actually very common. I was a young, college-educated adult looking to turn my altruism and idealism into reality. I utilized my year of service to not only help others, but also to help myself. My Jesuit education facilitated my growth and development into a well-balanced person, making me aware of the need to confront social problems and pursue social justice, and AmeriCorps was my opportunity to put my established philosophies and practices to use and find my personal and professional direction in life. Read more …

ward 200 by 200How My Adventure in National Service Came to Shape the Rest of My Life
Kevin D. Ward (AmeriCorps NCCC alum)

In 2001, like most of my fellow seniors studying economics at the University of Illinois, I didn’t have much of a post-graduation plan. The economy was bad, and there were few entry-level employment opportunities, or at least not many that sounded interesting. Graduation crept up, then suddenly passed. I found myself someplace many recent grads do: living with my parents. I was fortunate to find a job in a grocery supply-industry consulting firm that at least approached being related to my degree. The work was challenging and gratifying, but after six months, I knew I needed an adventure before starting my career.

After considerable research, I joined the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) program and packed my bags for Denver. What I didn’t realize is that my adventure in national service would be a life-altering experience that dramatically affected my educational choices, career trajectory and sense of purpose in life. Read more …

lenhart 200 by 200.jpgA Different Kind of Entrepreneur
Anna Lenhart (AmeriCorps VISTA alum and San Diego AmeriCorps Alums Chapter Leader)

When I decided to take a “year-off” between my junior and senior year of college to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA, I expected to get a needed break from studies and help some people. I was not expecting to launch my startup career.

I was placed at Shakti Rising, a women’s recovery and empowerment program in San Diego. Immediately I was placed on teams that were writing new program curriculum and launching new fee-for-service initiatives. I worked weekends and long hours with people who believed in the same mission as myself. It was a cash-strapped and short-staffed organization trying to make massive change. I may not have realized it at the time, but working at Shakti Rising was like working at a startup — we even had in-office yoga … AmeriCorps gave me a taste of what it is like to work in the fast-paced, creative environment I had always aspired to. Read more …

rooney 200 by 200What Charleston can Show Us All in the National Service Movement
Gordon Rooney (City Year AmeriCorps alum)

In the late evening of June 17, just a few blocks from where I was living at the time, something awful happened at Emanuel AME Church, one of America’s oldest African Methodist Episcopal churches. Nine individuals, including a state senator, were slain during a Bible study in a clear act of hatred. The suspect later confessed to committing the shooting to ignite a race war. Much has happened since. The confederate flag was taken down and off of the statehouse grounds in Columbia. Charlestonians came together in unity to show support for the church and community. During a prayer service in Marion Square, in the heart of Charleston, churches from all denominations chimed their bells in unison as people held hands in reflection. At another event, over 10,000 people from all walks of life came together to walk across the Arthur Ravenel Bridge to promote unity and peace.

The ripple effect from the shooting also sparked a national conversation on race in America. PBS visited Charleston to film “America After Charleston” where host Gwen Ifill moderated a discussion on race to try and determine where we go from here. Discussions on race are important, and we should continue having them, but it’s going to take more action to move us forward. While there is no one panacea, I am confident as to what a piece of the puzzle looks like. We should provide more service opportunities for young people. Read more …

roch turner 200pxWe are Responsible for Our Nation and Our Communities
Roch Turner (United States Navy veteran and AmeriCorps VISTA alum)

Whether it is military service, national service, or simply helping a neighbor in need, if one has the capacity to serve their community, it should be considered a mandate to do so. My military service was arguably the most impactful time of my life. The level of camaraderie experienced in the military is virtually impossible to put into words and even more difficult to replicate. However, on my first day of Pre-Service Orientation as an AmeriCorps VISTA, I walked into a room filled with national service members and immediately felt the same bond I felt on my first day in boot camp. While my service as an active duty sailor was certainly different than my service as an AmeriCorps VISTA, I can say without reservation they were both profoundly important events in shaping my understanding of service and determination to continue to serve.

Ironically, the group service project I participated in at Pre-Service Orientation was a Habitat for Humanity clean up event. Similar to my experience in Bremerton, we descended on a service site and made short work of a large project. After orientation, we all went our separate ways to serve at our respective AmeriCorps service sites. But we left with a greater sense of community and better understanding of the impact a group of people can have through service. Read more …

mcardle 200pxRewriting the Narrative about Flint, Michigan
Jennifer McArdle (AmeriCorps VISTA alum)

There’s an untold story in Flint, of neighbors helping neighbors, of people of all backgrounds serving their community, and of alignment between the city, nonprofit partners, funding partners, schools, and residents to champion service as a strategy to reinvent the community.

At the end of 2013, over 5,000 community residents came together and outlined a new Master Plan for the city — the first in 50 years. This ambitious document codifies the hopes and dreams of a 21st century community. But ambitious dreams require ambitious resources — something that’s clearly a challenge for Flint.

Here steps in Flint’s not-so-secret weapon: national service and volunteerism. Read more …

mike meaney 200px.jpgHow My Students and I Built a Classroom of Scientific Inquiry and Social Justice, and How It Changed My Life
Mike Meaney (Teach For America AmeriCorps alum)

I chose to do Teach for America because I believe that all children in our country deserve the opportunity to attain an excellent education. I am committed to promoting national service opportunities for young Americans because I believe we are a generation that cares deeply about justice and equity. The unexpected turn my professional life took as a result of my time teaching was by no means the only positive outcome of my experience. More importantly, I grew as a human being by working with my students as a team to create a classroom centered around scientific inquiry and social justice, and was proud to see them hurdle over entire grade levels of science content on their way to high school.

That said, I never expected to end up where I am today as a young professional. For that, I have Jorge to thank, as well the opportunity to have participated in a national service program, Teach for America. I encourage other young Americans to do the same. Read more …

matt and lauren 150 pxThe Bond That Unites the United States
Matt Blackwell and Lauren Boswell (Matt is a United States Army veteran and Lauren is a Teach For America AmeriCorps alum)

It has been suggested that required military service would give citizens an appreciation for their country, while providing an environment that promotes unity. I agree with the concept, but having experienced combat, when the bullets start flying, I only want to serve with those who are qualified, and more importantly, have the desire to be there. There are other ways to move past the differences that create barriers between us; it is essential to the success of our nation that we become a unified people, and the solution is not as difficult as some may make it seem.

Fast forward to 2015, and once again, I find myself surrounded by a similar microcosm of America’s best. This time it’s not solely soldiers, but all involved have served their country, worked for a greater cause, and share a common bond with those who have done the same. This group, the inaugural class of Franklin Project Ambassadors, have all been committed to national service in one way or another — through the military, Teach For America, or one of the other multitudes of AmeriCorps opportunities, such as Atlanta-based Habitat for Humanity. This unifying desire to give of oneself is the solution; this is how we bridge the divides in our community. Read more …

*Please note all op-eds are republished from an original series produced by The Huffington Post and the Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project in conjunction with Giving Tuesday. The series ran during the month of November 2015 and featured pieces written by additional Franklin Project Ambassadors, local leaders working with community stakeholders in 25 states toward the Franklin Project’s vision. 

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