AmeriCorps is the product of initiatives introduced by legislators on both sides of the political divide. One thing on which we can all agree, it seems, is the enormous importance of public service -- not only to the communities but also to the volunteers. Legislation tied to community service seems to receive extra impetus in times of economic difficulty.
In 1990, the first President Bush signed the National and Community Service Act. The act included literacy and conservation efforts, some linked to the Youth Service Corps. It also called for the creation of a nonprofit Points of Light foundation, named for Bush's "thousand points of light" inaugural speech and designed to identify new opportunities for community service. Under the Bush program, volunteers received small grants in recognition of their service [source: FWS].
AmeriCorps began formally in 1993 under President Clinton, who united several programs under an "umbrella" organization and created the Corporation for National and Community Service (the organization that administers AmeriCorps and several other national volunteer efforts). With the National and Community Service Trust Act, AmeriCorps began offering educational assistance in return for service. In 1995, VISTA joined the AmeriCorps family of programs.
Clinton's service plan came under fire from many conservatives, many of whom questioned the effectiveness and efficiency of the program's administration [source: Spalding]. Critics tend to refer to it as a "soft" program or one that exists for the sake of photo opportunities rather than real change. However, when the second President Bush announced plans to expand the program and raise the number of volunteers, he met with support, even from conservatives [source: Lynch].
In 2009, President Obama's recovery plan expanded funding for AmeriCorps. This aspect of the plan is known as the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, in honor of Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), a longtime champion of community service.
In less than 20 years, AmeriCorps volunteers have accomplished a great deal. The program is clearly popular, and -- critics or no -- it seems to be bringing civic-minded individuals into the areas that need them most. What happens next? Well, that's up to you.
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