Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • Celebrating America's Greatest Asset: Our Volunteers

    Volunteers Rebuild After Hurricane Katrina

    Volunteers help build homes on the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. (Photo from the Corporation for National and Community Service)

    Ed. note: The Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation is celebrating National Volunteer Week on April 15th – 21st to recognize individuals who serve their communities. This blog post introduces readers to Wendy Spencer, the new Chief Executive Officer of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

    It’s an old saying and a profound truth that it is better to give than to receive. During National Volunteer Week, April 15-21, we celebrate the millions of Americans who volunteer and recognize the extraordinary benefits of service to individuals, communities, and our nation.

    America always has had a strong spirit of neighbor helping neighbor. Since our earliest days, citizens have given generously of themselves to improve the lives of others. Today, over 64 million volunteers serve annually, strengthening the nation’s safety net and providing hundreds of billions of dollars in vital services to our communities. They are doing hard but necessary work: tutoring and mentoring youth, assisting seniors who live independently, supporting veterans and military families, helping communities recover from disasters, and so much more.

    As a lifelong volunteer – and a dedicated volunteer coordinator - I know the power of citizens in action. In 2004 and 2005, after a series of storms hit my home state of Florida, we saw an extraordinary outpouring of compassion: more than 250,000 volunteers came to assist in the recovery effort. 

  • PG&E Partners with Fresno Community to Create Summer Jobs for Youth

    Employers nationwide are working with their communities to answer President Obama’s Summer Jobs+ call-to-action to provide pathways to employment for low-income and disconnected youth ages 16 – 24 this summer and beyond.

    In support of Summer Jobs+, Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) will partner with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Fresno County to provide summer employment opportunities for underserved youth from Central Fresno.  With a $200,000 investment from PG&E, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Fresno County will provide career exploration and job skills training to more than 150 young people ages 15-18. Fifty youth from the program will be invited to compete for summer jobs with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Fresno County, local nonprofit organizations and local businesses.

    “A summer job can not only help ease the burden of back to school costs, it can help provide self-esteem, discipline, self-confidence and a sense of accomplishment that can last a lifetime,” said Diane Carbray, Executive Director, Boys & Girls Clubs of Fresno County.

    This partnership comes at an unprecedented time for youth unemployment: the 2011 unemployment rate for young people ages 16-24 set a record low, and only 21 out of every 100 teens from low-income families had a job last summer.

    President Obama proposed $1.5 billion for high-impact summer jobs and year-round employment for low-income youth ages 16-24 as a part of the American Jobs Act, but Congress failed to act. That’s why the President launched Summer Jobs+ in January to challenge the public and private sectors to create youth employment opportunities beginning in summer 2012.

    “PG&E is proud to help Fresno’s young people find jobs in this challenging economic environment,” said Greg Pruett, a Fresno native and senior vice president who serves as chairman of the PG&E Corporation Foundation. “Assisting them will provide a valuable boost for the businesses that take part, benefiting the entire Fresno community. It’s just one more way PG&E is giving back to the communities we’ve been a part of for more than one hundred years.”

    By investing in the success of youth in the communities it serves, PG&E is building its pipeline for the next energy and utility workers. In this “all hands on deck” moment, partnerships like these are essential for connecting young people to successful careers and addressing our economic challenges.

    Marta Urquilla is a Senior Policy Advisor in the Domestic Policy Council Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

  • Gulf War Veteran Serves Again Through AmeriCorps

    Ed. note: The Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation is commemorating AmeriCorps Week to celebrate the remarkable individuals who have served and their contributions to our country. This blog post introduces readers to Todd Schnittke, a veteran who served from 1989-1993 and continues to serve through AmeriCorps. When asked about his AmeriCorps experience, Todd writes:

    After serving our country for four years during the Gulf War as a Multiple Launch Rocket System Technician, I decided to resume my education and get a college degree. I learned about AmeriCorps after entering North Central State College in Mansfield, OH, and I was immediately drawn to the program. Working as an AmeriCorps member at AMVETS Career Center Post #26 in Mansfield offered me the unique opportunity to serve others in my community—especially active duty personnel and veterans—while earning the money I needed to attend college.

    I am now in my second year as an AmeriCorps employment specialist at AMVETS.  The rate of unemployment for veterans in the State of Ohio is around 16 percent—higher than the national average. The AMVETS Career Center where I work is one of 61 locations that help veterans secure employment through free job training, resume workshops, mock interviews, and access to employment opportunities.

    Coming Home is Not Always Easy

    The transition from the military to a civilian lifestyle can be very challenging, and I strongly believe that all men and women who risk their lives for our country should have every opportunity for success at home.

  • Taking the Path from Prison to Service with AmeriCorps

    Ed. note: The Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation is commemorating AmeriCorps Week to celebrate the remarkable individuals who have served and their contributions to our country. This blog post introduces readers to Ely Flores, a former prison inmate who has transformed his own life through service, and in turn, has transformed the lives of others. When asked about his AmeriCorps experience, Ely writes:

    My story is common for a child raised in a single-parent household in an underresourced and disenfranchised community. My father abandoned my family when I was young and, in my neighborhood, young offenders were more often sent to prison than to rehabilitation programs. I grew up in south Hollywood and South Central Los Angeles. Lacking a steady home life, I took to the streets and found violence as the only way to face my daily problems. My gang lifestyle eventually led to incarceration. I was in and out of prison for four years, until I realized that staying out of the penal system for good meant making profound changes in my life.

    It is deeply important for youth who are in the challenging situation I once faced – being out of school and out of work – to know that there are organizations and individuals in every community that care about providing support needed to lead a life of success and integrity.  For me, this support came through two AmeriCorps programs: LA CAUSA YouthBuild and Public Allies.

    LA CAUSA YouthBuild came into my life at age 17 when I was still in prison and about to become a father. The people at YouthBuild introduced me to self-accountability as I struggled to experience a positive transformation. They didn’t define me according to past crimes, but rather, embraced me with acceptance and trust.  

  • AmeriCorps: Developing the Next Generation of Public Servants

    My journey to this moment began almost twenty years ago. I saw a flier in the Black Student Center at Milwaukee Area Technical College promising to make me one of tomorrow’s leaders through an AmeriCorps program, Public Allies. Me? I was a teenage mother stringing together welfare, food stamps, student loans, work-study, and a child-care subsidy. If I failed, I knew, at least, I had tried.  Despite these overwhelming challenges, here I am today: an AmeriCorps alumna and Special Assistant to the President of the United States.

    The AmeriCorps program offered me hope in a time of economic and personal struggle.  It promised to prepare me for leadership through a full-time nonprofit apprenticeship and rigorous leadership training.  The program also provided life support, including much needed medical insurance, child care assistance, a tuition stipend, and a livable wage.  Most importantly, the program accepted me based on my future potential, not on my life situation at that time.  I had not graduated from college.  I was not top of my class in high school.  I had not played sports, volunteered, or done any “resume-building” extracurricular activities.  All I had, and all I needed, was an inclination and a desire to lead through service.

    During my time in AmeriCorps, I worked at the Youth Leadership Academy, a support program for African-American boys in grades three through eight.  These boys were also not model students.  They often had disciplinary problems at home and school.  But, they were accepted to the Academy based on their potential to lead. Using a systematic approach, the program would develop their discipline, teamwork, and academic achievement to build self-esteem and lead to more constructive behavior, better grades, and long-term success. These were my first mentees.  It was through this experience that I learned to appreciate potential, despite a person’s present circumstance.

  • AmeriCorps Alum Focuses on Helping Parents

    Ed. note: The Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation is commemorating AmeriCorps Week to celebrate the remarkable individuals who have served and their contributions to our country. This blog post introduces readers to Rhonda Ulmer, who works to educate parents so they can better help their students.

    Rhonda Ulmer Discusses University for Parents

    Rhonda Ulmer, left, discusses University for Parents during the “No Textbook Answer” documentary on Maryland Public Television with parent Brian Tucker Sr. and Meade High School Senior Charnele Thomas.

    I began my AmeriCorps journey when I was recruited into the program by the Community Action Agency in Annapolis, MD. My first job was to create a mentoring system for families of Head Start students. The next year, I continued serving in the program by training others in mentoring as a regional coordinator, and I returned for a third year with AmeriCorps to lead the program as a state coordinator with Volunteer Maryland.

    After my term ended, I began working at Johns Hopkins Health Care LLC, first as a Community Relations Coordinator and later as a Community Health Educator. But soon I would receive a call that would put me on another path. My children’s school, Van Bokkelen Elementary in Severn, MD, was in danger of a State takeover due to poor test performance and high student population turnover.

    A Parent Helping Parents

    Upon hearing about the school’s difficulties, I went to Rose Tasker, the Principal, and asked what I could do to help. She told me that challenges with parental involvement at the school were a major part of the problem. I found that not only were many of the children struggling, but that the parents were too. Many had a hard time supplying daily needs such as food, health care, and clothing for their families.

    When I learned this, I took a bigger role with the school’s PTA and began developing a strategy to improve the involvement of other parents. In doing so, I took everything I learned from AmeriCorps: first you get a plan, and then you find the key players involved. Throughout the project, I drew from the experiences of my first year of AmeriCorps service.