Fulfilling the Promise of Service

There is no excuse for turning away civilians -- especially young people -- who are looking for ways to put their energy and idealism to work for our country because there aren't adequate opportunities for them to do so.
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I believe that national service is the most effective and efficient way to harness the power of ordinary citizens to solve our nation's greatest challenges.

I believe in national service because I've seen the essential impact it has on people and communities nationwide.

A strong American legacy of service takes an inspiring step forward today with the bold vision articulated by The Franklin Project to establish a year of full-time national service as a common expectation and opportunity for all young Americans.

At the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival, General Stanley McChrystal called on our country to do more to instill in a young generation a sense of duty to country to complement military service, saying: "I think we need national service and I think we need it either at the conclusion of high school or university." McChrystal continued his call for service recently in the Wall Street Journal, saying, "Universal national service should become a new American rite of passage. Here is a specific, realistic proposal that would create one million full-time civilian national-service positions for Americans ages 18-28 that would complement the active-duty military -- and would change the current cultural expectation that service is only the duty of those in uniform."

This call for universal national service is a fulfillment of the promise embodied in our nation's still-too-small national service initiatives. For decades, civilians have been giving back to their community and their country through programs including AmeriCorps, VISTA, the National Civilian Community Corps, RSVP, Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions and service learning. Last year through AmeriCorps programs, 92,500 students in one initiative alone showed improved academic performance, more than 8,500 children demonstrated gains in school readiness, 17,000 veterans received services and assistance and more than 24,000 people received assistance from national service programs in disaster response, recovery, and mitigation. And these are just some of the powerful examples of the profound impact these programs are having in every state in this country.

But opportunities to serve are still too few. In 2011 there were nearly 600,000 applications for only 80,000 AmeriCorps positions.

There is no excuse for turning away civilians -- especially young people -- who are looking for ways to put their energy and idealism to work for our country because there aren't adequate opportunities for them to do so.

The history of Presidential leadership and support for national service is extraordinary. President George H.W. Bush created the first office of national service in the White House and the Points of Light Foundation; President Bill Clinton signed the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993 and created AmeriCorps; President George W. Bush called on Americans to commit to two years of service over their lifetime, expanded AmeriCorps and created the USA Freedom Corps. Each of them asked their successor to protect and grow opportunities for civilians to serve. In 2009, in the wake of the largest economic downturn since Roosevelt's presidency, President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, a blueprint for the largest ever expansion of service, which passed with strong bipartisan support from both chambers of Congress.

Today, the Franklin Project outlines a path forward that would make possible a universal opportunity for all young civilians to serve our country, by building on the existing service infrastructure that has proven itself so effective. Let's harness the potential of a generation poised and ready to rise to the challenges we face as a nation. It is time to scale national service and AmeriCorps.

This post is part of a collaboration between The Huffington Post and The Aspen Institute, in which a variety of thinkers, writers and experts will explore the most pressing issues of our time. For more posts from this partnership, click here. For more information on The Aspen Institute, click here.

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