All Together Now? AmeriCorps and the Thousand Points of Light

If you watched "All Together Now," Monday's televised "Celebration of Service" tribute to President George H.W. Bush, the founding force behind the Points of Light Foundation, it was hard not to be inspired by the stories of volunteers and the fact that all four living former Presidents were together for a rare evening of bipartisan goodwill.

It was also hard to forget that while this love fest was occurring at the Kennedy Center on March 21, across town, House Republican leaders were proposing to zero-fund the Corporation for National and Community Service. Ironic, since, as President Clinton made clear in his warm tribute to Bush "41" (that is, Bush the 41st President), the only thing Clinton asked Bush "43" to do was to continue AmeriCorps, just as Clinton had supported the elder Bush's Points of Light Foundation. In fact, Bush 43 not only continued AmeriCorps -- he expanded it, taking it from 50,000 members to 75,000 members.

If, as the Tribute suggests, we have seen the emergence of a modern service movement, George H.W. Bush indeed deserves much credit. But not just for his bully pulpit effort to inspire and honor the "thousand points of light" who give back - but for signing the first comprehensive service legislation that brought federal funding to the Points of Light Foundation as well as service-learning programs and the demonstration program that led to AmeriCorps.

When I wrote The American Way to Change, I found it was impossible to tell the story of the impact of volunteers in America without talking about AmeriCorps. AmeriCorps members are the recruiters and leaders of millions of community volunteers, the full-time, consistent presence that makes it possible for tutors to show up for an hour a week and still have an impact, or for a corporation to offer up volunteers for a "done in a day" clean-up project.

AmeriCorps members are behind Habitat for Humanity, the American Red Cross, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and thousands of grassroots organizations that receive AmeriCorps support through state commissions.

They have also played a role in volunteer projects highlighted at the Tribute. If you weren't looking closely, you might have missed the AmeriCorps Alums button on the lapel of Rhonda Ulmer, honored for creating an organization to help the parents in her child's school who were struggling to meet basic needs. She did this work as an AmeriCorps member with Volunteer Maryland, which, according to a local press report, taught her "about nonprofit organizations and the many needs in the community. She also gained the skills and training on how to build and create successful volunteer programs that helped many nonprofits meet challenges with measurable outcomes."

Chad Pregracke, honored for his Herculean efforts to clean up the Mississippi River, founded an organization called "Living Lands and Waters" that has engaged volunteers to pull literally millions of pounds of garbage from the nation's rivers. He started his effort on his own as a high school student, but over the years, his organization and its partners have benefited many corporate partners and at times from AmeriCorps support -- in fact, the organization's Program Manager Tammy Becker previously served with Living Lands and Waters as an AmeriCorps member and "uses her expansive experience gained from the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps to put together informative, fun and successful workshops," according to the organization's website.

Too often, the federal AmeriCorps program is the invisible partner in successful efforts to solve America's most intractable problems.

Anyone watching the star-studded tribute might easily have assumed that the amazing individuals highlighted were able to change the world all by themselves. Rhonda and Chad are indeed "Points of Light" -- in fact, they are true social entrepreneurs. The fact that they enlisted others for help with the support of donors, and at least in some small part, federal dollars, does not diminish their truly honorable accomplishments.

So here is my proposal: let the secret out. If you are an AmeriCorps Alum, buy an Alums pin and wear it as Rhonda did in her video. If you are an AmeriCorps member, wear your uniform or pin or hat so people know it. If you are an AmeriCorps sponsor, make sure AmeriCorps is featured on your website, your donor wall, and your worksite. And if you are a nonprofit that uses AmeriCorps service, put up a sign -- like the "United Way Working Here" signs found all over town.

And then write your Congressman and let him know what AmeriCorps has done for your community. If you want it to be around for another year.