One Day in Schools Can Spark a Lifelong Commitment to a Cause
"Why not volunteer on MLK Day?" was the confused response my 7-year-old son gave when his friend asked why he spent his 'day off' working with 1,000 other volunteers painting, organizing, and building in one of Brooklyn's most underperforming schools. Being a mother and the executive director of City Year New York has offered me many opportunities where my worlds serendipitously intersect and great moments like these are born. And in this particular moment I was reminded once again that the importance of service days like these isn't just the physical improvement we make to the schools we volunteer in, but rather the lasting impression we make in the minds of the volunteers who realize the impact they can have.
Over the years City Year's mission has become focused on ending the high school dropout crisis in this country. As part of this evolution of our mission we have had to evaluate the value of offering these one-off volunteering opportunities, like the Martin Luther King Service Day event my son participated in. Although these service days enable us to engage hundreds of volunteers in a focused service activity, the one-day duration of the activity doesn't provide the ongoing and consistent support we provide to the students we work with in schools daily.
Ultimately we have decided that continuing to offer these service days is a critical and valuable investment, not only for the schools we serve in, but also for the cause of national service. These service days make schools a more engaging place to learn and they give us the opportunity to share the national service experience with larger audiences. The vast majority of the nearly 1,000 volunteers who joined us last week were young people—our corps, local college students, and the students who attended the school we performed service in—Sheepshead Bay High School. And if their one day of service leads some of these volunteers to consider a career in national service, then the day served a purpose far greater than the paint we put on the walls and the blankets we made to donate to Sandy victims.
As a country, we are facing budget cuts and persistent challenges in the areas of education, public health, disaster relief, and the environment. In just the past month alone, New York City has lost $240 million dollars in state funding for public education and may lose hundreds of millions more. For the New York City public schools, this loss of funding combined with other financial challenges will result in reductions in teaching staff, after school programs, and other resources children in low performing schools desperately need. Despite how devastating these losses are, national service programs, like City Year, can help close the gap by providing an army of highly impassioned, well trained young people to serve in these schools as tutors, mentors, and advocates for students.
City Year's corps members are funded by AmeriCorps and they dedicate a year of their lives to serving in high need schools and making an incredible difference in the lives of the students they work with every day. However, what's almost equally impressive is the personal and professional development that I have witnessed with the young people who come through our program. Most of City Year New York’s staff are AmeriCorps alumni who first experienced City Year by volunteering at a service day—like our annual MLK Service Day. Sure, only a few of our 295 current AmeriCorps members will join our staff, but most will use their AmeriCorps provided education award to succeed in college or pursue a graduate degree. And at a time when getting that first job out of college is more challenging than ever before, all of them will leave their year of service with a meaningful job experience on their resume.
To my 7-year-old son, giving back and volunteering may seem like a logical way for an individual to spend their time, but the opportunity to serve in a national service program, like City Year or AmeriCorps is not as easy to come by as he would think. Last year, a record number—582,000 people—applied for 80,000 AmeriCorps slots. Unfortunately federal funding for AmeriCorps has been cut the last two years, meaning that we leave hundreds of thousands of Americans who want to donate a year of their life giving back without a consistent way to do so.
In addition it also means our most vulnerable communities that could use these volunteers the most will have less access to the low cost, high yield resource that is young people in national service. These young people who are turned away from serving their country represent a vast ocean of potential, both for the communities that they would affect and the skills they would gain. We may not be able to solve all the challenges that our communities face with a single day of service, but if a day of service can serve as the spark that inspires volunteers to become advocates and applicants for national service, then we are accomplishing more on our 'day off' than we can hope for the rest of the week.
Photo courtesy of City Year New York/Dan Lee