Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Serve America Act Anniversary Event

As she wrote on the White House blog the other day, Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes gave the opening remarks at a luncheon recognizing the one year Anniversary of the Serve America Act. We have included her full remarks below.

2010-04-21 Melody Barnes at Serve America Act Anniversary

Domestic Policy Council Director and Assistant to the President, Melody Barnes, delivers remarks on the one year anniversary of the Serve America Act in Washington, DC. April 21, 2010. April 21, 2010.

 

The White House

Remarks by Melody Barnes on the One Year Anniversary of the Serve America Act
April 21, 2010

W Hotel - Washington, DC

12:30 PM EDT

Good afternoon everyone.

Thank you Cokie for that kind introduction and for helping us start this exciting day. Thanks to America Forward, ServiceNation and Voices for National Service for your collaboration and leadership, as well as bringing us together today.

It’s my pleasure to share this stage with so many who have dedicated their careers to both serving their communities and expanding the opportunities available for others to serve —the Honorable Harris Wofford who has been a guiding star for us all; the wonderful Senator Jeanne Shaheen; our new Corporation for National and Community Service CEO Patrick Corvington; my friend Vicki Kennedy; and service leaders John Podesta, Shirley Sagawa, and Kerry Sullivan. 

It’s certainly not news to any of you that our nation is facing challenges that we haven’t seen in many generations, and at this moment your leadership and commitment has never been more crucial.  For 15 months, President Obama has been hard at work steering our economy away from the brink of depression, and fighting to strengthen our communities by sparking job creation, reforming our health insurance system, opening the door to higher education for millions of students, and laying the groundwork for long-term prosperity.   But we know government can’t do this alone – if there ever was one, this is an “all hands on deck” moment, and that’s why the President has called on every American to commit to meaningful volunteer service in their daily lives. National service and innovation – or community solutions, as we call it – are critical tools to addressing our Nation’s biggest challenges.

The good news is that millions of Americans have stepped up to the plate, and I feel particularly optimistic about the future when I look at all the service-minded leaders gathered in this room.  As leaders of some of the top community service programs across the country, your organizations are on the front lines of our economic crisis, our health care crisis, our housing crisis, you name it.  You’ve answered the call to serve at a time when your country needs you the most. You’ve found innovative ways to help your neighbors and improve your communities. And you are helping realize the President’s vision for a service-driven citizenry. Thank YOU for your work.

But we need to do more. We need more troops in our service Army, and that’s why the President supported and signed, one year ago today, the bipartisan Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act – to triple the size of AmeriCorps by 2017 and build a new generation of service leaders.  In the Senate, the bill was championed by Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy who knew that the future of service was too important to be bogged down in ideological differences and political battles. It’s when we come together with a shared vision and common purpose that great strides forward can be made. 

And already, we’ve seen results that would make Senator Kennedy proud as people across the country answer the call to serve.

People like Anna Mackowiak [Ma-co-vee-ack], an AmeriCorps Recovery Act Fellow in Georgia, who recently moved from private legal practice to a Legal Aid program devoted to preventing home foreclosures. 

And AmeriCorps VISTA members Sara Byrnes and Josh Cowles who were instrumental in helping a local public library provide free, volunteer-taught classes to provide men and women with vital job skills. Because of Sara and Josh’s work, the center has seen a 62% increase in the use of its services, and recently the center secured funding to expand services to surrounding communities.

And then there are stories like Gary’s.  Gary chose to enlist in the Army in 1966 and served a tour of duty in Vietnam.  Forty years later, he found himself in a position he never imagined: homeless due to the economic conditions facing his community and our country.  After nine months of homelessness, his life began to change in May of 2009.  An employment program for seniors led him to the Longview Housing Authority, which eventually became the host site for his AmeriCorps position -- a position created with Recovery Act funding and sponsored by the United Way.  Last June, Gary enrolled as a full-time member of the local AmeriCorps Recovery Team and used his first-hand experience with homelessness to reach out to other homeless veterans.  He assisted unemployed veterans with job readiness tools, informed them of available housing programs, and enabled them to connect with services available through the VA.  He eventually helped the Longview Housing Authority open up Vet Works in only four months, a project that was expected to take a year to launch.  Thanks to Gary’s work, homeless veterans are off the streets.

Anna.  Sara.  Josh.  Gary.  Four people transforming communities and lives, including their own.  And thanks to the Serve America Act, millions more – of all ages and backgrounds -- will get the same opportunity to transform their neighborhood.

Service as solution.  It couldn’t happen at a more critical time. The Recovery Act provided $200 million to put more than 15,000 Americans to work as AmeriCorps members, and every day they now provide vital services in our most economically distressed communities: Job counseling and placement service to neighbors facing unemployment;
foreclosure prevention and financial counseling to families at risk of poverty; weatherizing homes, strengthening food banks, supporting health care and independent living services. And the list goes on and on
   
And part of coming together to solve our nation’s greatest challenges means not just increasing the number that serve but also acknowledging that government alone is not the solution. Individuals across the country are responding to the tough problems by developing answers that will lead to more transformational and lasting change. We need to partner with them – as well as nonprofits, foundations and corporations – to solve our nation’s problems.

To this end, the Serve America Act also established the Social Innovation Fund to identify innovative, effective programs from across the country and help them replicate and grow to scale. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things if they're given the proper tools and support. The best ideas often come straight from the communities that need them most. With the Social Innovation Fund and similar funds in other federal agencies, we can better support creative, results-oriented, and proven models, and take them to scale in communities around the country.

The next great leap will be made when we as a country recognize that service, civic participation, and innovation are core to addressing our nation’s challenges – not just “something nice to do.”  That’s why the President invested in the largest expansion of national service opportunities in history. And that is why the President and the First Lady are leading by example -- whether it’s reading to kids at area schools or bringing high school students into the White House for a monthly mentoring program. The First Lady even publicly challenged the students at George Washington University to complete over 100,000 hours of community service this year; they did, and she will be giving their commencement address this spring in recognition of their achievement.

Given the President and the First Lady’s commitment to service, we’re particularly thrilled that Patrick Corvington has joined us as our new CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service.  For many years he has been on the frontlines of leadership development and volunteerism, dedicating his career to building the next generation of leaders and investing in the future of the national service and social innovation movement.  He’s a great leader for this moment, and I’m pleased to call him my colleague and friend, and work with him to realize the President’s goals.  

In closing, I’d like to thank you again for the hard work you have done over the past year to promote and expand service since the Serve America Act became law.  It is appropriate that this legislation is named after Senator Kennedy, a true visionary and champion of service, a mentor and a friend to many, myself included.  

You know, when Senator Kennedy spoke of service, he often recounted the parable of the starfish.  An elderly man encounters a young boy surrounded by thousands of star fish on a nearly deserted beach.  Eagerly, the young boy was picking up the starfish and throwing them back into the ocean.  The man asks the boy what he’s doing, and the boy tells him that he’s trying to save the star fish.  Chuckling, the man says, “son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you.  What difference can you make?  A starfish in hand, the boy looked at the man and – gently tossing a starfish into the water – said, “it will make a difference to that one.”

Ted Kennedy was like that boy – methodically, deliberately tending to individuals and communities . . . always believing in the possibility for transformation.  If he pressed a little harder . . . better education for more children. If he led the charge . . . body armor for soldiers. If he introduced the bill . . . redress for hate crimes. If he put his shoulder to the wheel . . . health care for all Americans.

The Senator was motivated by that huge heart but disciplined by hours of study and hard work and mastery of the institution – the Senate -- he loved.  Ted Kennedy embodied national service and like all great leaders he challenged us – he still challenges us -- to find our own patch of beach and to start gently tossing starfish back into the ocean.

So today, on the first anniversary of the bill that bears his name, I want to thank you for your continued partnership and leadership. And I look forward to doing more good work together.

Charlie Anderson is a Assistant in the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.
 

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