America’s active interest in community service has skyrocketed in a time of great need, in part thanks to the Kennedy Serve America Act enacted just one year ago. Patrick Corvington, newly minted CEO of the Corporation for National Service, shared with foundation leaders attending the Council on Foundations’ annual conference in Denver that 1.5 million more people are volunteering today than they were at the end of 2008. That is great news, but the corporation’s future goals are loftier still: moving the needle from 75,000 to 250,000 Americorps volunteers by 2017!
Corvington isn’t daunted by this challenge because, in his view, people truly want to volunteer—we just have to ask! Volunteering is an idea, and an ideal, that is fundamentally American. In Corvington’s own words, “there is a lot of opportunity to make a difference right now,” and service is the fuel for social change. However, Corvington reminded us that “good effort is not good enough. We must not only try, we must succeed” in our efforts to make sure people have every opportunity for a quality education, a good job, and a meaningful life. His advice for all of us: “Step into the current of history, live lives that matter—of service.”
U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the 17th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke aloud the audience’s silent question: “We’re hearing from the military. What’s that all about?” When chuckles subsided, Mullen enlightened the audience not only about the importance of military service but also the importance of military servants post-discharge, to the future of America. Did you know that the average age of the 2.2 million enlisted men and women is 20 to 21? Or that many of these young people return home to their communities after discharge still in their 20s with potential for many future contributions, including service to communities? Here’s the issue: Veterans are often invisible in our communities.
Despite a robust new GI Bill, and the traditional services of the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs, vets can get lost in the shuffle of government programs and community services when they are discharged and return home. Perhaps those with physical challenges are more visible. But Mullen shared these sobering statistics: an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 individuals and families suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome; the number of homeless men and women has escalated well beyond what our country experienced after Vietnam; and the number of suicides has doubled since 2004. His advice to foundations and nonprofit organizations: Reach out to veterans, include them in service delivery programs that already exist in most communities to deal with housing, mental health, education access, workforce development and more. Use colleges as a point of access. “We all want the same thing: to raise our children to a higher standard of living, and to do it in peace,” Mullen said.
Kathy Merchant is the president and CEO of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation.