Today's Heroes Inspire Service in the Shadows of Gettysburg

Gettysburg is an historic site that embodies the power of service to country, inspires patriotism, and calls upon us all to commit ourselves to the continued improvement of our nation. Last week, inspired by the hallowed grounds and the lasting resonance of President Lincoln's profound words, the Aspen Institute's Franklin Project, in partnership with the National Conference on Citizenship, ServiceNation, and Voices for National Service, gathered leaders and advocates of national service for a Summit at Gettysburg. The Summit highlighted the important strides we have made to improve our nation and communities through civilian service, and called for a dramatic expansion of full-time national service opportunities throughout the country.

In Gettysburg, we heard from influential thinkers and decision makers on the value of national service in local communities, and the role service can play in addressing national challenges. For me, however, it was the stories of those who have served that reignited my drive to ensure Americans of all ages and backgrounds have the opportunity to make a difference through service.

DeShawn Singleton grew up in Detroit and served with AmeriCorps Urban Safety Project, a national service program championed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and former Detroit Mayor Dave Bing. AmeriCorps Urban Safety Project helps local residents to protect their neighborhoods from rampant crime. With his AmeriCorps team, DeShawn went door-to-door to establish and grow block clubs and local tenant organizations. They partnered with existing neighborhood groups to organize clean-ups, bike watches for children, board-ups of abandoned buildings, and host bar-b-q's and social gatherings to build community among neighbors. The program has helped to reduce crime in targeted neighborhoods by 44 percent, decreasing the cost of crime in the city of Detroit by $62 million. DeShawn's story is a clear example of how national service can transform a community from within, ensuring meaningful and lasting impact tailored to meet community needs.

Erika Johnson served as a legal advocate with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, the national service program that I served with and that launched my passion for service years ago. Serving in Baltimore, Erika teamed up with local attorneys to provide legal services to low-income tenants who are often subject to substandard living conditions. Erika helped to empower local residents and encouraged one Baltimore mother to testify before the state legislature, sharing her story of a neglectful landlord. The testimony helped to pass a tenants rights bill and, thanks in part to Erika's service, low-income Maryland residents now have the opportunity to demand better living conditions without fear of losing their homes.

Thomas Trapane Jr. is an AmeriCorps member serving with FEMA Corps, a joint national service initiative of the Corporation for National and Community Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Thomas leads a team of specially-trained Disaster Survivor Assistance Specialists, has worked to pilot an interactive program that educates high schoolers to become preparedness advocates within their communities, and has traveled door-to-door in disaster areas, equipped with an iPad to connect local residents with the services and supports they need to begin their recovery. Thomas' service is an example of how national service can be leveraged to accomplish national priorities, and FEMA Corps is projected to save the nation $60 million by more efficiently delivering critical disaster relief services.

In Gettysburg, we also heard from Staff Sergeant Regina Winefred Best who, after serving her country in the military, has worked tirelessly with the Habitat for Humanity affiliate in Dallas, engaging thousands of people of all ages to build homes for families in need. Through her service, Regina has coordinated more than 20 youth builds; built 15 sawhorses; constructed 25 ladder braces; cleaned four neighborhoods; and repainted three homes. That only begins to describe the impressive list of her accomplishments and impact in the local community. Regina is truly an impressive servant leader.

These remarkable stories of service demonstrate the role national service can play in lifting up local communities and tackling national challenges. These are exactly the kinds of stories our nation's leaders and lawmakers need to hear each day.

Americans are lining up to serve, but too often lack the opportunities to do so. Between 2009 and 2011, applications for AmeriCorps positions jumped from approximately 360,000 to more than 582,000--a more than 60 percent increase in just two years. Competing for fewer than 80,000 AmeriCorps positions nationwide, however, hundreds of thousands of Americans who step forward to serve their nation and communities are turned away annually.

Reminded in Gettysburg of the power of service to transform a nation, and inspired each day by stories of service like those of DeShawn, Erika, Thomas and Regina, I stand ready with the national service movement to ensure that national service becomes a cultural expectation, a common opportunity, and a civic rite of passage for all Americans.