National and community service is part of the Northwest DNA. It was given expression at the turn of the 20th century as new settlers to Puget Sound joined voluntary associations, from the Everett Women’s Book Club to fraternal groups like the Knights of Columbus. As Norman Clark notes in “Mill Town,” his seminal history of Everett, associations provided the social glue for a nascent population. Clubs, along with area churches, often inspired members to embrace public service and philanthropy.
Eighty years ago, the first Civilian Conservation Corps crews reinforced that service ethic. Young, unemployed men were put to work in May of 1933 at projects around Bacon Creek in Skagit County and Camp Darrington just north of town. In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt surveyed a CCC reforestation project near Lake Crescent on the Olympic Peninsula. The sight of miles of clear-cuts compelled the president to become a vocal backer of creating Olympic National Park in 1938.
Service took other forms in the 1960s, including the Peace Corps and its domestic counterpart, Volunteers in Service to America. And then came AmeriCorps, the most comprehensive effort yet to inculcate the value of helping others.
Sept. 21 marks the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps, the national service program that has been a vehicle for people from all walks of life to give back. The AmeriCorps oath encapsulates a service-centric mission that defines a new generation. “I will get things done for America,” it reads. “To make our people safer, smarter and healthier.” The oath could be an addendum to the pledge of allegiance or a post-citizenship mantra: Service above self. Other programs that fall under the rubric of the Corporation for National and Community Service include Senior Corps, Foster Grandparents and the Senior Companion program.
Washington continues to churn out more AmeriCorps members per capita than any other state. The Washington commission’s former director, Bill Basl, is now running AmeriCorps in Washington, D.C. Basl pioneered some of the most innovative programs to date, including the Washington Service Corps and projects to help veterans re-adjust to civilian life.
The AmeriCorps experience also benefits members themselves. A corporation study documents the path from volunteerism to employment. Volunteers have a 27 percent greater chance of landing a job than their non-volunteer contemporaries. And volunteers in rural America have a 55 percent greater chance of finding employment.
The Snohomish County Executive’s 2014 budget will include a director of volunteerism and internships. It’s a role that could make a tangible difference, providing opportunities for Northwesterners, old and young, to experience the true meaning of public service.