Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • Peace Corps Reflects the Diversity of America: A Story Celebrating Service

    C.D. Glin Peace Corps

    Peace Corps Volunteer C.D. Glin with children in his South African community, 1997 March 29, 2011. (by Peace Corps)

    Ed. Note: In October 1994, Presidents Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela met to seal a bond of friendship and a promise to work together to transform South Africa from a divided nation to one united by its commitment to build a democratic, nonracially based society.  The Peace Corps was a small but important part of that agreement.  Today there are 152 Peace Corps Volunteers in South Africa working in the fields of education and NGO development.

    As long as I can remember, I have aspired to live and work in Africa.  As a young African American growing up, I wrote anti-apartheid rap songs in high school, interned with an Africa advocacy group, and even shook Nelson Mandela’s hand at a reception during my junior year of college at Howard University.
    While interning in Accra in 1994, I had the opportunity to meet Peace Corps Volunteers serving in Ghana.  They were community leaders welcomed by Ghanian communities, communicating in local languages and sharing new ideas.

    Once learning about Peace Corps service, I only had two thoughts: Why hadn’t I heard about this sooner? And: Where could I sign up?  That year, President Mandela invited the Peace Corps to South Africa and asked for a Volunteer group that truly reflected the diversity of America.

    In January 1997, the Peace Corps swore-in the first group of 35 Volunteers going to South Africa, and I was among them.  The assignment for our group was in elementary school education, serving in South Africa’s Northern Province (now renamed Limpopo Province) as liaisons, advisors and trainers for local teachers.  The goal was to help implement a new national education curriculum that offered parity among people and replaced the current curriculum, which was based on ethnicity, race, and color.

    To better communicate with my community, I learned an African language, Northern Sotho.  I took pride in learning a new language and culture, though it came with some frustration; I would inevitably be drawn into the same questions.

    “Where are you from?”

    “I’m from the States,” I’d reply.

    “No, I mean where are you really from?”

    “From the States,” I’d say again, this time more emphatically.

    Then came looks of confusion and annoyance. Why, they wondered, would I deny my heritage and language? Surely I was African. They would try a new tack.

    “Well, where are your parents from?”

    And on and on it went.

    These conversations of heritage and where I came from often led to discussions about slavery and the number of people of African descent in the United States.  As I gave impromptu history lessons, I always mentioned the similarities I saw between South Africa and the United States and the struggle for racial equality.  Exactly 40 years after Brown vs. Board of Education struck down “separate but equal” in the United States, apartheid was struck down with the first national multi-ethnic democratic election in South Africa’s history.  In response to frustrations expressed that their personal circumstances hadn’t immediately changed, even though the government had, I would explain that slavery in America was followed by a reconstruction period and the civil rights movement.

    I feel privileged to have played a small part in South Africa’s civil rights movement as it transitioned into a democracy, and I am grateful that the Peace Corps gave me this opportunity.  As the Director of Intergovernmental Affairs and Partnerships at the Peace Corps, and a former staff member of the Office of Minority Recruitment at the Peace Corps, I continue to support Peace Corps’ efforts to ensure that Volunteers reflect the face of America and that everyone is provided with opportunity to serve.

    C.D. Glin served in South Africa from 1997-1999 and currently, is the Director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and Partnerships with the Peace Corps.

  • Taking On a World of Challenges: A Story Celebrating Service

    Congressman Garamendi, Peace Corps

    John and Patti Garamendi help administer vaccinations to children in Ethiopia. March 28, 2011. (by Office of Congressman Garamendi)

    Life is about choices.  I could not be prouder of my decision to serve in the Peace Corps with my wife, Patti, in Ethiopia.  The experience imbued us with the courage to choose a life of public service: to dedicate ourselves to developing policies that create social and economic justice and lift people out of poverty.

    In 1966, at the start of our Peace Corps journey, we found a new home in rural Ethiopia: a tin roof, dirt floor, wattle walls, and unlimited opportunity to serve.  Teaching seventh and eighth grade and women’s family health education, digging wells, offering small pox vaccinations, building remote schools, setting up coffee co-ops – every day was filled with helping the community.

    The work inspired confidence in the ability of our common humanity to overcome daunting challenges.  We witnessed remarkable cooperation and an intense desire to build a thriving community.

    The partnerships we forged through our Peace Corps experiences have borne fruit up to this very day.  For example, small pox was once a scourge upon our earth that disfigured, blinded, and killed millions.  In administering vaccinations, we played a part in a global campaign that led to the eradication of this disease.

    In the 1980s, I returned to an Ethiopia that was suffering from mass famine and drought due to civil war.  Using my knowledge of water issues, I worked with a local public servant to provide water to a large camp of people displaced from the fighting.

    In the late 1990s, during the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, I led a peace delegation of returned Peace Corps Volunteers to negotiate between the warring states.  Because both heads of state had been taught by Peace Corps Volunteers, they were willing to talk with us, and we were able to help negotiate a peace treaty.

    My Peace Corps experience has guided me throughout my career.  For instance, having seen the transformative benefits of expanding health access to rural areas of Ethiopia, I authored a law in the California legislature that made it easier for families in remote areas of California to see a doctor.

    These Peace Corps stories are replicated over and over again by Volunteers of the past, present, and future.  Peace Corps Volunteers return to America as tried and tested leaders.  They are ready to take on a world of challenges in this country and continue a life of service.

    Congressman John Garamendi served in Ethiopia from 1966-68 and currently represents the 10th Congressional District in California.

  • Inspired to Serve: A Story Celebrating Service

    Congressman Farr Peace Corps

    Sam Farr served in Medellin from 1964-66 with one of the first Peace Corps groups in Columbia. March 28, 2011.

    Fifty years ago this month, President Kennedy challenged Americans to serve their country in the name of peace.  I was one of the many who got inspired to serve, and I count myself fortunate to have been a Peace Corps Volunteer under the masterful direction of Sargent Shriver.

    As one of those early recruits, I worked in a poor barrio in Medellin, Colombia where I saw the grinding cycles of poverty that left so many men, women, and children without hope.  This barrio had no lights or running water.  But what this community lacked in infrastructure, they made up for with an unyielding commitment to build a better life for their children. 

    Immersing myself in the culture and language, I learned about the needs of the community and worked with the men and women of the barrio to uplift the whole community.  Resources were scarce and life was not easy, but armed with the will to make a difference, I worked shoulder-to-shoulder with my Colombian friends to build a local soccer field, a school and install sewers.  Because these projects were driven by the community members, they fostered an enduring sense of community empowerment that outlasted any one volunteer.

    My story is one of millions that have emerged over five decades of Peace Corps service. And these stories, from the Volunteers and the communities they serve, help to shape our country’s image around the world.  Over the past 50 years, through war and conflict, the Peace Corps has shown the world a hopeful, uplifting side of America that reflects our fundamental ideals of peace, service, and grassroots development.

    It is in no small part, that because of my experience in the Peace Corps today, I have the privilege of serving the United States Congress.  Peace Corps taught me to listen and react to the needs of those you serve.  And that is a lesson I have used everyday in my 30 years in elected office.

    As we celebrate 50 years of service by nearly a quarter million Americans, Peace Corps has never been more relevant.  As President Obama said in his Proclamation honoring the Peace Corps, “In our increasingly interconnected world, the mission of the Peace Corps is more relevant today than ever.”  I am very encouraged that Peace Corps has 8,655 Volunteers currently serving in 77 developing countries, marking a 40-year high.  I urge my fellow Americans to honor 50 years of incredible service, and to encourage the next generation of Volunteers who answer the call to serve our great nation in the name of peace.

    Congressman Sam Farr served in the Peace Corps in Colombia from 1964-66 and represents the 17th Congressional District of California

  • Veterans Helping Veterans: A Story Celebrating Service

    In 1986, three Vietnam War veterans – Peace Foxx, Mark Helberg and Ken Smith – made a pilgrimage to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC.  They were surprised to find a large number of homeless veterans living in the park nearby and returned to Boston inspired to make a difference.

    After learning that veterans comprise nearly one-third of the national homeless population, Foxx, Helberg, and Smith founded the Vietnam Veteran’s Workshop.  Through HUD’s Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, they acquired a 10-year lease on a former VA Outpatient Clinic in downtown Boston in 1989.  A year later, they opened the doors to the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans, one of the nation’s first veterans-only homeless shelters, now known as the New England Center for Homeless Veterans (NECHV).

    NECHV was recognized by President George H.W. Bush as the “142nd Point of Light” – part of a vision that ordinary individuals across the country can make a difference in their communities.  NECHV takes a multi-pronged approach to the issues that challenge homeless veterans.  The center supports veterans through five core program areas: Emergency Shelter; Transitional Housing; Single Room Occupancy Apartments; Training and Employment; and Health Care and Case Management.

    The Center collaborates with local programs to provide the services necessary to ease transition back to civilian life, especially for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  NECHV partners with the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program (BHCHP) to provide emergency medical care for all residents.  The Center has a full-service in-house eye, medical, and dental clinic to provide on-going medical care.  NECHV takes a personal approach to addressing the issues facing our veterans – reducing the incidence of homelessness one veteran at a time.  Stephen Cunniff, Director of Community Affairs, explained that each veteran has his or her own case manager and that this commitment to individual needs inspired two special needs programs that the Center runs in partnership with the Veterans Administration.  The Senior Services Program caters specifically to the needs of veterans over the age of 65.  The Bridges Program provides clinical case management for veterans with chronic and persistent mental illness.  The Center also hosts a number of tailored drug abuse rehabilitation programs for their veterans that take an integrated approach to addressing mental health and addiction issues.

    Cunniff finds the work “extremely rewarding,” which is reflected in their low staff turnover and abundance of volunteer and community support.  The organization collaborates with the government and private institutions to tackle a national problem on a local level.

    Share your story of an organization that takes a community based approach to address a national challenge.

    Divya Kumaraiah is the Policy Assistant to the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

  • More Than Interest: A Story Celebrating Service

    Iris Dooling AmeriCorps

    2008-2009 Louisiana Habitat AmeriCorps members who were recruited, interviewed, and managed by Iris Dooling. March 24, 2011. (by Iris Dooling)

    Joining AmeriCorps was a way to tackle issues of educational inequality and poverty housing head-on.  I joined to share my love of learning with at-risk students and help rebuild the Gulf Coast after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

    During my service, I gained new skills, and through some mistakes, I found a new confidence.  I learned how to hammer down a nail in 3 swings, and get a rowdy class of 45 seventh graders to sit still and craft an essay.  I experienced failure when the stakes were high, and how to get up and try again until I succeeded.  I felt the resiliency of my adopted community, which refuses to be wiped off the map. 

    My service was personally transformative.  However, national service is much more than a defining experience for those who serve; it has a profound impact on the communities in which volunteers serve. 

    Last year, 657 AmeriCorps members served with Habitat for Humanity at 187 sites throughout the country.  These members served for 1 million hours, raised $4.5 million in cash and in-kind donations, supported 200,000 community volunteers, and helped 3,642 Habitat families.  Since the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes more than 110,000 AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and Learn and Serve America participants have contributed more than 9.6 million hours to the Gulf Coast recovery effort.

    National service is indeed a part of the solution to our nation’s most pressing challenges.

    No one person believed in the power of national service as a solution to our country’s problems more than the late Eli J. Segal.  Eli Segal was an inspirational leader in the national service movement, and the first CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency that administers the AmeriCorps program.
    Last year, I had the honor of serving as the 2010 Eli J. Segal Fellow at CNCS.  This provided me the opportunity to develop and implement national service policy initiatives with the Director of AmeriCorps.  As the Segal Fellow, I applied lessons I learned through my AmeriCorps service to improve and expand the AmeriCorps program.  After my fellowship, CNCS hired me to serve as a Disaster Services Specialist, in a position that enables me to continue to serve my community.

    So, why am I interested in national service at this point in my life?
    I am passionate about national service as a key way that we all come together to meet the considerable challenges in our nation and our communities.  I have witnessed firsthand the transformative effect national service can have on the members who serve and the communities in which they serve.

    Why are you interested in national service at this point in your life? Share your story with us.

    Iris Dooling was the Program Specialist for the Louisiana State AmeriCorps program for Habitat for Humanity from 2007-2009, and served as the 2010 Eli J. Segal Fellow at Corporation for National Community Service. 

  • "All Together Now: A Celebration of Service"

    Throughout the month of March, the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation is celebrating stories of service.  Last night, the Points of Light Institute paid tribute to President George Herbert Walker Bush, America’s 41st President and the man who inspired the modern service movement.

    Throughout his life, President Bush has promoted the notion that every day, in communities across America, countless ordinary individuals and community organizations are hard at work volunteering their time and skills to help make a difference in the lives of others.  He described this hands-on movement as “a vast galaxy of people and institutions working together to solve problems in their own backyard.” 

    During his Administration, President Bush created the first ever Cabinet-level position dedicated solely to service and established the Daily Points of Light Award to highlight individuals making a difference in their communities.  President Bush called the nation to service, and in response, the Points of Light Foundation, which later became the Points of Light Institute, was created.  Thanks to the work of President and Mrs. Bush, many Americans have come to recognize the voluntary action of citizens as a cornerstone of our democracy. 

    President Obama continues to carry on this legacy of service.  Within the first 100 days of his Administration, he made expanding national service a Presidential priority by signing into law the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act.  The landmark legislation reauthorizes and expands AmeriCorps and establishes the Social Innovation Fund.  Two key ideas promoted by the Act – rewarding results and demonstrating the impact of national service programs – have resonated with communities and funders around the country.  Since the signing of the Act, there’s been an emergence of new models of civic and corporate engagement and a fresh focus on evaluation and metrics for success. 

    Service is not separate from our achieving our national priorities, but integral to it.  In fact, in times of challenge, we are best when we turn to community for the solutions rather than away from it.  Through the creativity and ingenuity of engaged citizens, we can create a future that allows our children to prosper. 

    Last night, the Points of Light Institute honored President and Mrs. Bush for their remarkable leadership and dedication to service.  The public event in Washington D.C. brought together all of the living former Presidents, many senior Administration officials, and thousands of people from around the country who have helped their communities through service.  Tune into NBC on Monday, March 28th to watch the event.

    The Points of Light Institute is also collecting inspiring stories from around the country.  Share yours on their online Tribute Wall.

    Sonal Shah is the Director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation