Just after the swearing-in ceremony of hundreds of new AmeriCorps members at the LBJ Library on the UT-Austin campus, Parc Smith, executive director of American Youthworks, was posing in a group photo with AYW staff to commemorate the occasion.
The staff leader of the beleaguered nonprofit was taking a moment to commemorate its two AmeriCorps member programs, the Texas Conservation Corps and YouthBuild, both of which put young people in service to the community. While the local media and the Texas Education Agency are taking AYW to task about its charter school, which helps hundreds of the toughest-case kids get their GEDs and diplomas, these two AYW programs continue to help Central Texas young people reframe their futures.
“The programs are intentional and transformational,” says Smith. “The kids who come through these programs have said to us, ‘We used to be the bad kids. Now we’re the good kids.'”
Earlier this month, AmeriCorps celebrated 20 years and more than 900,000 members across the country. Launched in 2004 by President Bill Clinton, AmeriCorps was created to empower volunteers across the nation, offer them a modest living allowance and a chance to earn money for college. At the 20th anniversary celebration, President Clinton remarked by live video feed that the AmeriCorps members performed $4 worth of work for every $1 invested in the program.
AmeriCorps members take on a wide variety of tasks at nonprofits and cause organizations across the country. They can support administrative functions of education nonprofits, provide direct services like mentoring students or beautifying parks, or serve on environmental projects like disaster response. Some of the programs specifically enroll low-income young people who want to work toward a diploma and vocational training, like the programs at AYW.
Their contributions go beyond a dollar value. In 2013, AYW’s Conservation Corps team responded to Hurricane Sandy, the West Fertilizer Plant Explosion, the Oklahoma Tornadoes, and flooding along the Rio Grande. The crew is on call for the state of Texas in times of disaster and deploys as requested by emergency management officials throughout the country. Meanwhile, AYW’s YouthBuild program teaches hands-on construction skills while allowing members to earn their diplomas or GEDs.
“I’ve seen the look on their faces when these young people have helped built ramps to homes for the disabled or been a part of a home build,” says Smith. “The kids who come through the program were just lacking an opportunity to be significant.”
In Austin, about 550 AmeriCorps member will serve through 11 programs this year at nonprofits including American YouthWorks, College Forward, Breakthrough Austin and Communities In Schools. Placing those members in selected nonprofits is the work of OneStar Foundation, a nonprofit, bipartisan, state-created agency led by powerhouse nonprofit leader Liz Darling.
OneStar celebrates a milestone of its own this year – its 10-year anniversary. “It’s a big time for us,” says Liz Darling. “What’s exceptional about AmeriCorps is that is has had 20 years of success during periods of intense political rivalry. This is one issue that has had bipartisan support, and I think it’s because it’s about neighbors serving neighbors.”
While a 2009 law signed by President Barack Obama increasing the funding to AmeriCorps has yet to be fulfilled, Darling says that won’t stop the program from its continued success and impact.
“For these nonprofits, AmeriCorps is a force multiplier,” says Darling. “It extends their reach exponentially.”
Learn more about AmeriCorps opportunities across the United States for people aged 17 to 97 and apply to be an AmeriCorps member.