Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • 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

  • Sharing Solutions Through Service: A Story Celebrating Service

    Sarah Lopez Peace Corps

    Lopez teaching her students in El Salvador during her service as a Peace Corps Volunteer . March 17, 2011. (by Peace Corps)

    Ed. Note: The Peace Corps program in El Salvador began in 1962 and is was one of the agency's earliest posts.  More than 2,100 Americans have served in El Salvador coordinating with local municipalities, NGOs, and community groups to develop better water systems, make health and sanitation improvements, provide environmental education, and assist municipal development projects.  Sara served as a Municipal Development Volunteer in El Salvador from 2003-2006. 

    When I first arrived in Candelaria de la Frontera, El Salvador, I frequently wondered, “Why can’t this country just be more like the U.S.?” Though my family is of Hispanic heritage, I had usually shied away from being labeled as Hispanic and did not regularly embrace many parts of Latino culture.  It took me about a year to understand that I had to accept the country with all of its idiosyncrasies, and that if I was going to be there as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I had better work my hardest to make my two-year commitment worth it.  So I began meeting with different community groups, helping to strengthen their internal functions and facilitating communication with the local city hall. I organized youth camps, giving many children in my community the opportunity to travel outside of their village for the first time while facilitating educational experiences.  

    I soon realized that I loved being a Peace Corps Volunteer, and I loved learning about Latino culture, appreciating it, and embracing it.  I decided to stay in the country after my Peace Corps service to manage a service-learning program at a private high school in El Salvador, whose students would become future leaders in many fields.  The program taught students the value of service by helping them become development workers who learned more about their country by doing hands-on work. On several occasions, I used my Peace Corps community for service-learning activities, and my students led youth camps for children from other Volunteers’ communities. 

    Working with Salvadorans across the economic spectrum allowed me to learn about Salvadoran society, culture, and different paths to community development.  Experiencing the daily obstacles to community improvement in the Peace Corps, and facilitating a student’s first exposure to the stark realities of their country, made me more determined to learn about solutions to poverty; I pursued a Master’s degree in public affairs and learned about solutions on a broader scale. I am now a proud federal employee who strongly believes in the ability of government to provide the foundation for community-level initiatives to address poverty. 

    I consider the Peace Corps as my launching point for my career in public service, and I am grateful for the grassroots experience that continues to shape my thoughts and actions. 

    Sara R. Lopez is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer and a Program Specialist in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and Partnerships with Peace Corps. 

  • Transformation Starts From Within: A Story Celebrating Service

    I went to law school in California planning to make the world a safer place by incarcerating criminals.  During my first week, I volunteered to teach incarcerated youth about the law, in all honesty, because I wanted to meet “juvenile delinquents.”

    This service experience changed my life. 

    I realized that underneath the shells of hardened “juvenile delinquents” were kids.  Kids who had grown up believing that by the time they were 18 or 21 they would be in prison or dead.

    Kids who over and over again would tell me: “If only.”

    • “If only I knew how much trouble I would get into.”
    • “If only someone had cared about me.”
    • “If only I had been given a chance to do something good for community…I wouldn’t be here.”

    I hadn’t expected to care.  But, their stories began to haunt me.  I found myself wishing that someone would listen to their ideas and do something to help.  Then it hit me – I should stop wishing and start doing.

    So I asked them, “What would you do to help other kids from ending up here?”  They said: 1. Teach kids about the consequences of crime to help them learn how to make better choices; 2. Connect them with a positive role model to help them be successful; and 3. give them a chance to give back to their communities to help them show it’s not too late for “juvenile delinquents” to change.

    These youth wrote letters of recommendations for seed funding to start Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY). Today, over 10 years later, with 100 volunteers and 26 staff, FLY provides the programs they recommended: legal education, mentoring, and leadership training for kids in the juvenile justice system and those at-risk for system involvement.  The kids who helped design FLY were right; their suggestions worked.  FLY effectively helps kids start transforming their lives for less than 1/10 the cost of incarceration.

    At FLY, the youth we seek to serve continue to be our greatest teachers, reminding us that those we want to help have the greatest insights into what they need and an incredible capacity to serve as part of the solution.  Personally, I am mindful that being a part of an organization that is all about transformation began, first, with my own.

    Christa Gannon is the Founder and Executive Director of Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY)