Michelle Bouchard Senate Testimony
March 10, 2009
U.S. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), a senior member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and Chairwoman of its Subcommittee on Retirement and Aging, presided over a HELP hearing on expanding national service opportunities in America on March 10, 2009. The hearing, “The Next Generation of National Service” begins the push, led by Senator Mikulski, Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) on the Senate side, and supported by the Obama administration, to greatly expand domestic and international service opportunities for all Americans.
“This election unleashed an incredible energy. People want to know how they can give, how they can help, how they can serve. They want to be part of an effort to improve society, but they don’t always know how,” Senator Mikulski said. “That’s what this hearing is about today. How can we refresh, reinvigorate and reform our national service programs to provide more Americans opportunities to serve and meet the challenges we face today?”
The Senate is expected to take up the Serve America Act in March. The Serve America Act amends the successful National Community Service Act and expands it to include new programs and new opportunities for Americans of all ages and backgrounds to engage in national service.
Senator Mikulski has long championed efforts to expand national service opportunities. In 1989, the Senator introduced the National Community Service Act, which created a program that evolved into what is now AmeriCorps. She has also been its chief advocate in the Senate, fighting to strengthen the organization and protect key AmeriCorps programs.
The March 10th hearing examined how expanding existing national service programs and creating new ones can help local communities and tackle the most intransigent challenges of today. The hearing featured testimony from experts in the national service field, including: Alan Solomont, Chair, Corporation for National and Community Service; Steve Goldsmith, Vice Chair, Corporation for National and Community Service; Lester Strong, Chief Executive Officer, Experience Corps; Michelle Bouchard, President, Health Corps; Governor Racicot,Former Governor of Montana; Michael Brown, Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer, City Year; and Shirley Sagawa, Private Consultant/National Service Expert.
“Good Afternoon. I’d like to welcome and thank our panel of witnesses for being here today. I’m chairing this hearing for Senator Edward Kennedy, a champion of national service, and a chief sponsor of the Serve America Act. As always, I’m happy and honored to lead the charge in his absence.
“I’ve been called the Godmother of community service. Wherever I go, people of all ages tell me they want to serve. They want to be part of an effort to improve society. We’ve got our economic stimulus. Now it’s time to give the American people a social stimulus.
“Talking about national service legislation is especially poignant for me. Last month, it will have been 20 years since I introduced my national service legislation that eventually evolved into AmeriCorps. Service has always been dear to me. After grad school, I answered President Kennedy’s call to service. I took my Master’s in social work, and went down to the VISTA training center to teach volunteers how to be effective in the communities they serve. Seeing that group of determined people making a difference through gumption and hard work really made an impact on me. It was a wonderful experience. One that has colored everything I’ve done since. It’s a special thing to answer a President when he asks you to serve. “We’re here today to talk about the next generation of national service. How we can refresh, reinvigorate and reform our national service programs to meet the challenges we face today. Senators Kennedy and Hatch have written an excellent bipartisan bill. National service has always been bipartisan. FDR put his mark on national service through his Civilian Conservation Corps, which put people back to work conserving our public lands. President Kennedy called the nation to serve with his Peace Corps. President Johnson had his VISTA program to get young people to fight the war on poverty. President George H.W. Bush founded his ‘Points of Light’ to leverage non-profits in doing community work. President Clinton has his AmeriCorps.
The Kennedy/Hatch Serve America Act expands national service so that that we can increase the number of national volunteers from 75,000 to 250,000. But this bill doesn’t just allow more people to serve. It asks people to help solve specific challenges in the areas where our nation continues to struggle: we ask our high school students to join service-learning programs to reduce school drop-out rates, improve our neighborhood parks, and keep our communities clean through local recycling efforts.
“We want to set our young Americans on a path to lifetime service. We ask our college graduates to give a year to a targeted service effort and help us tackle America’s education, health, energy and poverty problems. We ask our retirees to help us value their skills and experiences and make service work for them.
“We’ll leverage federal dollars to help them transition into service jobs by providing an ‘Encore Fellowship’ to incentivize service for an older generation that remembers giving back isn’t just nice to do, it’s the right thing to do. We ask our service alumni to give once more by enlisting in a Reserve to be deployed during times of national crisis or need. We ask our skilled professionals to engage in short-term service in developing countries to improve people’s living standards, and to help rebuild America’s standing in the world. We ask our successful and dynamic non-profits to increase their capacity and bring their innovative ideas to scale.
“This isn’t just about new programs and new opportunities. It’s about answering the demands of a public that isn’t just saying they want to give back, they’re screaming for the opportunity. Last year 25,000 college seniors applied for a slot in Teach for America to teach two years in our nation’s most challenging schools. There were only 4,000 slots. The Peace Corps received approximately 13,000 applications last year for less than 4,000 slots. And In the last two years, young people across the country volunteered their time and effort to a cause fueled by optimism and hope even though the outcome was uncertain. I’m happy to say they got a handsome return on their work on Nov. 4th. Now we’re blessed with the challenge of harnessing this surge in goodwill and renewing the call to service that inspired my generation, the President Kennedy generation.
“I think this legislation is a way to revive this spirit of volunteerism and service to our country. I think it is a way to harvest what I’m calling the ‘Obama effect.’ There’s this new fascination with civic engagement hat President Obama inspired throughout his campaign. This last election unleashed an incredible energy. People want to know how they can give, how they can help, how they can make a difference. Our President’s actions speak to the people. When our President says that national and community service is important, and that it has a positive impact both on communities and the volunteers who serve in them, he’s speaking from experience.
“And it’s affecting people of all ages and all walks of life. Last summer, I was talking to a veteran teacher in Baltimore who usually had to push for 10 kids to come to her summer math classes. Last summer that changed. She had a waiting list of more than 100 kids.
“This teacher asked one of the young boys, ‘what do you want to be?’ He said, ‘I want to be smart.’ And when she asked him what he wanted to be smart for, this young boy replied: ‘I want to be smart because of Obama. I look at Obama and he can do it. I want to do it, too. But I know I’ve gotta start out wanting to be smart.’
“The teacher left the room and started crying. In her 25 years in the Baltimore School system, no student had ever said, ‘I want to be smart.’ So Obama’s reaching our students. He reached the people last November. He’s even reached Congress by asking us to send the Serve America Act bill to his desk. Let’s give the public a chance to express the habits of the heart that were the foundation of this country: neighbors helping neighbors, communities sticking together.
“President Obama has asked us to move quickly. And we will. But we also know process is important. And we need to go through the regular order– hearing from experts, hearing from Republicans and Democrats. I’m looking forward to a mark-up next week. But this hearing is an important step and in keeping with the tenor set by majority leader Reid. Let’s move forward together.”