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TALKING IT OVER
October 4, 2000
I have often heard my husband say that his proudest accomplishment as President has been the success of AmeriCorps -- the national service program he created to provide people with money for college in exchange for substantial service.
Since the launch of AmeriCorps six years ago, nearly 200,000 Americans have served on the front lines in hard-pressed neighborhoods -- tutoring in schools, responding to natural disasters, helping to make our streets safer, building homes and more. They can also be found in rural towns, Indian reservations and national parks -- and in every state in America. They come from all walks of life, but they have two things in common: a mission to get things done and a track record of hard-hitting results.
While communities benefit, so, too, do the AmeriCorps members themselves. Not only are they improving their communities, they are also improving their own skills as citizens. Last year, an independent evaluation of the program determined that after participating, members shared a lifelong commitment to service; all members, but especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, gained skills they would one day need in the work world; and on top of that, they earned grants to further their education or to pay off student loans.
In an era of fierce partisan politics, the bipartisan outpouring of support for one of this Democratic president's signature programs might well come as a surprise. But surprise aside, the enthusiasm from government leaders of every political stripe is an honest testament to the leadership of former Senator Harris Wofford, CEO of the Corporation for National Service, and to the success of this very special program. Just listen to what these prominent Republicans have to say about AmeriCorps:
General Colin Powell: "It is a tremendous investment in young people, a tremendous investment in the future, and I am a strong supporter of AmeriCorps. I think they have demonstrated their worth, they have paid their dues, and they are worthy of the support I hope they will get from Congress."
Senator John McCain: "I was wrong about AmeriCorps. I was extremely skeptical at first, mostly because I didn't trust the authors. But I've got to say that overall, the program's been a success. And it was a failure on my part not to recognize that earlier."
Montana Governor Marc Racicot: "AmeriCorps works. It is cost-effective, and achieves results all Americans want -- safer streets, better schools and healthier children. At the same time, by teaching young people to serve their country, AmeriCorps is rekindling a sense of patriotism and civic duty that our country sorely needs."
Governor Racicot feels so strongly about the benefits of AmeriCorps that he led an effort to win the support of his colleagues, 48 of whom -- including Texas Governor and Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush -- have signed a letter urging Congress to renew AmeriCorps and the other national service programs administered by the Corporation for National Service for the next five years.
Here's how the letter concludes: "As Governors, we recognize the value of national service as a tool in meeting important needs in our states. We have seen national service at work in our states. We do not want to lose this force for good in our communities, states and country."
More than half of all AmeriCorps members work with children -- many at the forefront of the national effort to teach children to read. In one year, AmeriCorps members at the Reading One-to-One AmeriCorps in Dallas, Texas, provided 50,000 hours of tutoring to more than 1,100 elementary students. Improvement among first graders was dramatic. Other members work with some of the country's most effective nonprofit organizations, from Habitat for Humanity to the Red Cross.
One of the collateral benefits of AmeriCorps is how contagious it is. In Alabama, 12 AmeriCorps members recruited and placed more than 1,300 volunteer tutors in schools across the state. In Oregon's Project SMART (Start Making A Reader Today), 73 AmeriCorps*VISTA members recruited more than 8,500 community volunteers last year. SMART now serves 167 schools in 14 counties, reaching 8,535 children.
In the face of this record of achievement, the overwhelming bipartisan support and the President's request to fund 12,000 new members, which would bring the total annual work force to 62,000, I have to wonder why the House appropriations bill cut funding for AmeriCorps entirely? And why the Senate version cut $26 million -- not only refusing the President's request for an increase of 12,000 members, but reducing opportunities to serve in AmeriCorps by 3,000.
I applaud the governors who have signed the letter of support for AmeriCorps, and I sincerely hope that our elected officials in Washington will follow suit. Before they return to their districts for the election, I urge them to reauthorize the program and approve the President's requested funding for next year.
If we want our children to grow up as good citizens who understand the saying "Service is the rent we pay for living," it is up to us to lead the way.
To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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