AmeriCorps: Providing the resources for all communities to flourish

Dani Lubin-Levy joined A Better Chicago in 2015 and works closely with our grantees as a portfolio associate. Before joining A Better Chicago, she spent two years as an AmeriCorps Fellow at LIFT, an organization working with low-income community members to combat poverty. The White House Administration recently released a budget that proposes defunding the Center for National and Community Service (CNCS), which operates all AmeriCorps programs. AmeriCorps’s mission is to strengthen communities and develop leaders through direct service. The following is Dani’s perspective on why it is imperative for AmeriCorps to be protected within the federal budget.

 

As an AmeriCorps Fellow at LIFT, I encountered many motivated people who needed help moving their lives forward. One client who stands out is Denise. Saying goodbye to me after her last appointment, Denise wrapped her arms tightly around me, her eyes a tear-filled ocean of gratitude and relief. “Thank you so much for everything,” she kept repeating. Each repetition served as a reminder of the impact AmeriCorps has on our communities and organizations.

When Denise arrived at our office for her first appointment, she had just lost her disability benefits, was unemployed and did not have a high school diploma. She was worried that she would no longer be able to support her son. We worked together to find a workforce training program that supported her objectives and needs. We collaborated on applications and engaged in mock interviews. Three months later, Denise was accepted into her first-choice program.

As I hugged Denise goodbye, I was confident that she had gained the resources necessary to put her family’s life on a positive trajectory. It was in that moment that I began to further appreciate what being an AmeriCorps member was all about. In providing individuals like Denise with influential support and access to critical opportunities, my fellow AmeriCorps members and I were truly having an impact on the communities we served. What LIFT clients like Denise might not have realized is the impact they were having on us. Getting to work alongside these community members opened my eyes to the complexity of poverty and led directly to my commitment to a career of service. This – inspiring young Americans to dedicate their lives to moving our nation forward – is the heart of the AmeriCorps mission, and my AmeriCorps story is not unique. Right now, more than 80,000 members are gaining equally valuable experiences providing support to nonprofits, community based organizations, schools and public service agencies across the United States. And, AmeriCorps is providing the nonprofit sector with this pipeline of passionate and talented citizens in an incredibly cost-efficient way. AmeriCorps members dedicate a year or more of their lives to community service in exchange for only a small stipend (approximately $12,000 annually).

AmeriCorps was the catalyst not only for my decision to chart a course in the nonprofit sector but also for A Better Chicago’s Founder and CEO, Liam Krehbiel. Now, we have the privilege of seeing the impact of AmeriCorp's work every day through A Better Chicago’s grantees. With 15 AmeriCorps members serving as critical members of its team, College Possible Chicago (a grantee since 2015) is a perfect example. Its AmeriCorps members are changing the academic trajectory of low-income students by providing them with the support they need to access and succeed in college. College Possible Chicago AmeriCorps members equip high school students with the knowledge and skills they need to navigate the college application process and financial aid landscape. Once students enroll in college, AmeriCorps members continue to provide an extra layer of support to address the academic, social and financial barriers that often inhibit low-income and first-generation college students from earning a bachelor’s degree. Without this support, many of these students would not see college as an option. Jessica Ramirez, a College Possible Chicago AmeriCorps member, reflects, “My students, while exceptional on every level, had doubts about attending college, many first in their families to consider this pathway, similar to my own situation. But by helping them envision this pathway, they are excited to go through the process and become a college graduate.”

Unfortunately, students served by College Possible Chicago would lose this critical support if AmeriCorps were defunded. Executive Director of College Possible Chicago, Christine Poorman, shared, “AmeriCorps provides College Possible with the funding and infrastructure we need to hire talented recent college graduates who go on to provide guidance to students. If AmeriCorps were eliminated, we would face tremendous challenges in serving not only the 1,000 students we plan to serve in Chicago by 2020, but the 30,000 students we serve nationally each year.” 

If the proposed budget is approved, College Possible Chicago will be one of many organizations to bear the weight of a significant loss. AmeriCorps touches the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens living in under-resourced communities. In Illinois alone, there are 1,600 AmeriCorps members serving approximately 38,000 youth in underserved, under-resourced communities. Close to 50% of these members serve in Cook County.

A Better Chicago is a proponent of responsible spending, and we understand that governments at all levels must make tough choices about how to invest finite resources to have the greatest impact. It’s for that exact reason that we wholeheartedly believe that funding AmeriCorps is the right choice for our country. AmeriCorps is one of the government’s most efficient and effective vehicles for supporting communities and developing a generation of engaged citizens. Regardless of political affiliation, we can all agree that this is more important than ever.