Bill Signing, Appointment Mark Big Day For National Service

It’s a big day for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). On the same day he signed legislation to provide the federal agency an additional $1.1 billion in the next fiscal year, President Barack Obama said he will nominate Maria Eitel as its new CEO.

Eitel, the president of the Nike Foundation and a vice president at  NIKE, Inc., would replace David Eisner, who stepped down this past  fall, if she is confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Prior to becoming the  Nike Foundation’s first president, Eitel was Nike Inc.’s first vice president for corporate responsibility, leading the development and  implementation of Nike’s first corporate responsibility agenda. She  also has served as European corporate affairs group manager for Microsoft Corporation and worked with the Corporation for Public  Broadcasting and MCI Communications Corp.

A signing ceremony at The SEED School in Washington, D.C., culminated a speedy passage for the Edward M. Kennedy  Serve America Act that aims to triple the number of AmeriCorps members  over eight years. The act was passed by the House of Representatives  on March 31, only 22 days after it was introduced in the Senate, and  barely a month after Obama urged its passage during his first joint  session before Congress.

The $5.7-billion Kennedy Act will expand AmeriCorps members from the  current 75,000, to 250,000 by 2017. It also will create a $50-million  Social Innovation Fund; establish new service corps aimed at poverty,  education, health care, energy and veterans; and set Sept. 11 as a  national day of service, among other things. The bill will take effect  Oct. 1, the start of the new federal fiscal year.

Supporters of the legislation said it’s Capitol Hill’s response to a  percolating volunteer movement that has been fueled by the president’s  call for public service. This year, there were 13,000 community  service projects on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, almost three times as many as last year and the largest turnout in the 14 years since  Congress urged the public to observe it as a national day of service.

In addition to the 25-percent budget increase for CNCS, the agency’s AmeriCorps program is slated to get $200 million through the $787-billion economic stimulus package approved earlier this year. The Kennedy Act reauthorizes legislation that created the corporation in 1993. The measure that created CNCS was last reauthorized in 1996 and has been a patchwork effort since then, said Steven Goldsmith, vice chair of the corporation’s board.

“The corporation is a catalyst for service to provide support for organizations and opportunities for people to serve and make a difference in their communities,” said Alan Solomont, chairman of the CNCS board. “A new generation is coming of age and looking to participate in something larger than themselves by serving their communities and their country,” he said.

AmeriCorps has experienced a 234-percent boost in the number of online applications it received during the past five months as compared to the same time last year. In March, online applications tripled, to more than 17,000, compared with March 2008. Solomont credits the “Obama effect” of people wanting to serve their community, as the president has been urging people to do so since before he was elected last fall. Solomont said the current job market also has young people looking to community service as a viable alternative coming out of high school and college.

“There’s a political and national consensus that it’s a good use of public funds,” said Solomont. “The notion that we’re paying volunteers is probably not an accurate characterization,” he said.

“Sometimes people use volunteers and national service worker interchangeably,” said Melody Barnes, director of White House Domestic Policy Council.

AmeriCorps members are paid but work for community organizations recruiting and training volunteers and working to make them more effective, said Goldsmith, a former mayor of Indianapolis.

The 75,000 current AmeriCorps members leverage 492,000 Senior Corps  volunteers, reach 1.1 million students through the Learn and Serve  program and 2.2 million volunteers through AmeriCorps. The AmeriCorps  expansion is not specifically paying volunteers but creating the infrastructure to mange those volunteers and help more Americans serve  their communities, Goldsmith said. The AmeriCorps expansion is the  infrastructure that will help increase the current 62 million  Americans who volunteer, he said.

“We’re responding to something percolating up, it’s generational.  There’s no question young people are the leading edge of this but  we’re seeing it among Americans of all ages,” Solomont said. “We’re  trying to expand the capacity of our programs and the corporation to respond to the enthusiasm of service sweeping the nation.”