By Nathan Rothstein
When I went down to Gulfport, Mississippi in the spring of 2006 to volunteer, I didn’t know the Gulf Coast would be my home for the next four years. I met with people who had lost so much, but still had hope. Inspired by their resilience, as soon as I returned to Umass-Amherst, I desperately wanted to return. For weeks, I would browse the internet, make phone calls, send emails, all in hopes of finding a job that would allow me to participate in the rebuilding process. Finally, I got a call back from the Phoenix of New Orleans and was hired as one of their first AmeriCorps volunteers.
I arrived in a city that had been 80% flooded only nine months earlier. Every home in my new neighborhood had thick, ugly, yellow stains marking the line to which the water had risen.
The roads had not been paved since the 1930s when the WPA hired local workers to improve the city’s public infrastructure. Now there were only a small number of families, maybe a dozen, occupying a neighborhood that in the summer of 2005 had been home to 5,000 people. Our job was to gut the houses, which meant walking into moldy homes, removing furniture, refrigerators, family photos that had been left behind, and tearing out the sheetrock so the rebuilding process could begin.
The work was difficult, the conditions were rough. While American soldiers were abroad fighting two wars, AmeriCorps volunteers rebuilt homes that had been torn apart by our country’s failure to protect our levees. When we had a spare moment, we would walk down to Frenchmen street or go to neighborhood meetings in the evening where we met other young AmeriCorps volunteers working in relief organizations around the city. It became clear that AmeriCorps volunteers led the majority of the volunteer coordination in the city. Anyone who picked up a hammer or painted a wall in the past five years in New Orleans was most likely managed by an AmeriCorps volunteer.
According to a recent study conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Service, “more than 110,000 national service volunteers have contributed more than 9.6 million hours to the relief, recovery, and rebuilding effort. [AmeriCorps] also have coordinated an additional 648,000 community volunteers, a major share of the overall volunteer force.”
On February 9th, the US House Appropriations Committee voted to approve a plan to significantly cut the federal budget. Republicans are suggesting the elimination of AmeriCorps. They have proposed a budget that cuts the entire program, which is approximately 700 million dollars. The studies also show that for every dollar the U.S. spends on AmeriCorps, it earns 42 cents back through the jobs created and increased property values.
If AmeriCorps is cut, Massachusetts will lose approximately 55,000 jobs. This will be absolutely devastating to nonprofit organizations around the state who rely on AmeriCorps volunteers to maximize their impact. We will also disgrace the legacy of Ted Kennedy. During his final few years, Kennedy fought hard for the expansion of the AmeriCorps program, and in the spring of 2009, President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act which planned to engage millions of Americans in service to our communities.
When the bill was signed, only months before Kennedy passed away, he said, “Today, another young president has challenged another generation to give back to their nation.” Republicans, let our generation continue to participate in service to our country.
Sign the Petition to Save AmeriCorps. Call your representative and ask them to vote no on a continuing resolution that eliminates funding for the Corporation for National and Community Service and AmeriCorps. Connect with Stand for AmeriCorps on Facebook.
Nathan Rothstein is the co-founder of Swellr, a company combining online commerce and fundraising to mobilize local citizens to make purchases that simultaneously support local businesses and the classroom needs of local teachers. He spent the previous four years working in New Orleans, Lousiana launching social enterprises and helping progressive candidates run for political office. Nathan has been featured in The Boston Globe, USA Today, NECN, and The New Orleans Times-Picayune for his work. He has presented workshops on the subject of how young people can make a social impact at Yale, UMass-Amherst, Howard, MIT, Harvard, and Tulane University.