By Alan Khazei and John Bridgeland
Friday night, Senators McCain and Obama began the first of three debates to highlight their approaches to many of our society's most chronic problems: the economic crisis, Iraq, widening health care and income gaps; a high school dropout epidemic; energy and environmental challenges; and more. The subtext of these debates is that our public and privates sectors have struggled to meet these challenges. On Saturday, more than 200,000 Americans participated in over 2,700 events across the country to showcase how citizens can play a big role in addressing these very problems through community and national service.
If there is one thing both candidates agree on, it is that the next president will have to call on all our citizens for greater sacrifice and service. The ServiceNation Day of Action provided a one-day snapshot of the extraordinary things ordinary people can achieve, especially in tough economic times, to empower service as a key strategy for uniting Americans and solving problems.
* In Fife Lake, Michigan, an entire community completed a home renovation for terminal cancer patient Larry Dillon so his wife will be able to live in their dream home after he is gone.
* In Miami, Florida, volunteers rallied to clean up the beaches of Pelican Harbor Island, a critical pelican rookery and habitat that President Theodore Roosevelt declared as the first federal bird reservation.
* In Salt Lake, Utah, volunteers helped the Community Food Co-op distribute food to more than 6,000 residents.
* In Topeka, Kansas, volunteers spent the day reading to kids at the public library.
* In Gresham, Oregon, volunteers from dozens of churches worked with the city to organize a "Graffiti Wipeout."
Recent studies show that Americans, particularly retiring Boomers and coming-of-age Millenials, want to serve. But right now, AmeriCorps and Peace Corps have roughly three qualified applicants for every position they can offer, and last year Teach For America had 24,718 applicants for just 3,700 slots. Local non-profits and faith-based institutions also want to engage more volunteers, but need support to increase capacity.
Leveraging proven service strategies, and creating opportunities for every American who wants to serve, is not a Democratic idea or a Republican idea. It is a quintessentially American idea, a bootstrap approach in which citizens take greater responsibility for the future and Washington stays out of the way except to provide the investment required to take successful service programs--like Habitat for Humanity, Teach For America, City Year, Citizen Schools, YouthBuild and Jumpstart--to scale.
It is also smart investing, because service dollars help kids succeed in school, and help connect Americans to training, job opportunities, and preventive health care. Every young American who ends up in a job instead of a prison cell saves the federal government hundreds of thousands of dollars, and studies show that every dollar invested in AmeriCorps returns at least $1.50 to $3.90 in direct, measurable benefits. In addition, in 2007 alone AmeriCorps programs leveraged more than $400 million in non-federal resources.
Just as important, community and national service work in virtuous synergy: AmeriCorps and other national service volunteers increase community service capacity because they are used to manage and leverage large numbers of volunteers who get nothing from government (last year 75,000 AmeriCorps members mobilized and directed 1.7 million community volunteers). This management role is particularly critical when it comes to increasing volunteer surge capacity in the aftermath of natural disasters, and has been at play throughout this past summer from the floods of Iowa to the ravages of Hurricane Ike, where just over a thousand AmeriCorps members have been organizing tens of thousands of community service volunteers helping with the cleanup.
Senators Kennedy and Hatch, longtime friends from the opposite sides of the partisan divide, get it. Their new Serve America Act will increase both community and national service opportunities, and provide targeted investments to address specific problems, such as the high school dropout epidemic. Senators McCain and Obama have signed on as co-sponsors, an unusual act of unity in the midst of a heated presidential campaign.
If you want to see what America could look like in the new era of service envisioned by Senators Kennedy, Hatch, Obama and McCain, then check out our website, www.servicenation.org to read the stories of impact from the ServiceNation Day of Action projects that occurred on September 27. Or join Mrs. Obama and Mrs. McCain, and sign the Declaration of Service, signifying a commitment to expanding opportunities for citizens to serve. Mrs. Obama and Mrs. McCain join other Declaration signers such as First Lady Laura Bush, Caroline Kennedy, Senators Clinton and Dodd, Congressman Rob Portman, and many more to stand behind the idea of service. In a time of crisis and uncertainty, you will see what Americans have always done best: going to work, united, to overcome great challenges and build a better future.
Alan Khazei is CEO of Be the Change, Inc. and Co-Founder of City Year. John Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises and former Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and USA Freedom Corps. Both are lead of the ServiceNation campaign (www.servicenation.org).