On Sept. 12, Washington state will mark the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps at the Capitol Campus in Olympia (arrive before 11:00 am to snare a seat.) It’s a milestone for a program that breathes life into an American ideal, however much the full promise of national service remains elusive.
National service is part of the Pacific Northwest’s cultural fabric. Generation after generation, service defines us. Eighty years ago, Camp Darrington, a project of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, opened, enrolling thousands of unemployed, twentysomething men. From battling forest fires to building roads, CCC members cultivated a sense of community service and received a modest stipend, room (or more accurately “tent”) and board.
It’s a tangible legacy. The trickier parts of the Mountain Loop Highway between Granite Falls and Darrington were built by CCCers beginning in 1936. World War II and the GI Bill anchored that spirit of service.
The national service model quickly fell together. The Peace Corps was followed by Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and the establishment of VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America, a forerunner to AmeriCorps.) Northwesterners continued to stand out. Today the UW and Western Washington University are the country’s prime producers of Peace Corps volunteers, many trained in development-related disciplines such as agriculture, botany and engineering. In 1970, Rep. Lloyd Meeds helped launch the Youth Conservation Corps, a summer environmental youth program with a CCC-style focus.
Washington developed its own Conservation Corps, the WCC, in 1983, and the Washington Service Corps, both refined and launched by Bill Basl. Basl’s defining experience was as a VISTA in Walla Walla in the early 1970s. He currently runs AmeriCorps in D.C.
The AmeriCorps experience 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.
And there is service where the benefits are solely intrinsic. (Serving as a Reading Corps tutor or helping a low-income family with their income taxes.)
AmeriCorps members have helped with the Oso recovery, just as they’re helping restore Everett’s Forest Park. They are as ubiquitous as they are unseen. It’s an asset that needs to be recapitalized.
Washingtonians can celebrate next week’s AmeriCorps’ anniversary by elbowing their members of Congress to scale up program enrollment and make whole the promise of national service.