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A Gratifying Marathon: Looking Back at 50 Years of Service

We need long distance runners in the service field, not sprinters. I’ve been running this race since the '50s and plan to keep on doing so. My mega-marathon started as a young seminarian studying for the priesthood in Chicago. I spent most of two summers working with parentless kids at Angel Guardian Orphanage. I’m not sure I saw it clearly as 'service,' but more as an expected obligation—it was a requirement for all seminarians. I embraced it wholeheartedly and experienced for the first time the consistent mutual benefits of service.

Throughout most of the '60s my service was in two inner-city Chicago parishes and as part-time staff in the Archdiocesan Office of Urban Affairs. As a young activist priest, my mentors were the iconic Catholic clergyman, Monsignor Jack Egan, and Saul Alinsky, a radical agnostic Jew considered the founder of modern community organizing and the Industrial Areas Foundation. Throw in a little Jane Addams settlement house influence and you get the picture. There was a lot of civic social activism mixed in with direct service trying to meet the needs of a poor, increasingly Hispanic population in the community where I lived and worked on Chicago's Northwest Side. It prompted the local newspaper to brand me as that “pinko priest from Saint Boniface.”

I once went toe to toe with the legendary Mayor Daley one summer speaking truth to power about the city reneging on funding to Catholic Charities' summer programs for kids. The mayor tried to blame it on the Feds, when it was clear the city’s poverty program was really shuffling money around. We took action by busing a thousand underserved, mostly minority kids to Civic Center Plaza with nuns in full habits to conduct a "play-in" on the floors below, while I and a towering, African American organizer insisted that we would not leave until they guaranteed to free up the funds. Daley relented, and we got the money, making a ‘summer of service’ possible for a lot of teenagers.

The late '70s saw a surge in state and federal funding of a network of conservation corps. This upsurge at the end of the decade was virtually gone by the end of Reagan’s first year in office. The Labor Department’s Office of Youth Programs, where I then worked, was the heart of the largest domestic initiatives during the Carter administration.

One seed we planted in those Labor Department years was the Youth Action Restoration Crew in East Harlem. That program grew into the YouthBuild national network of 273 programs in 46 states, Washington, D.C., and the Virgin Islands. YouthBuild USA has enabled hundreds of thousands of mostly minority dropouts to complete high school, learn building trade skills, and repair and construct housing for low income seniors and poor families. Two of my sons later worked for YouthBuild.

On December 31, 1981, nervous with five young kids, I found myself involuntarily unemployed for the first time after Reagan wiped out the Department of Labor's Office of Youth Programs. By the Spring of ’82 I convinced the Eleanor Roosevelt Institute to fund the Roosevelt Centennial Youth Project which evolved into Youth Service America (YSA). This was the ‘Big Picture Entity’ that a core group of service advocates felt was needed to promote and advance youth service on all fronts. It quickly became the vehicle for uniting disparate student, collegiate, and youth corps service projects.

Together they began to develop a common language. A YSA Working Group on Youth Service Policy coalesced around program development and policy strategies and began to advocate for federal legislation. Partners like the Campus Outreach Opportunity League, Campus Compact, and National Youth Leadership Council led to significant increase in pre-collegiate and campus-based community service all across the country, including statewide student service requirements, private schools requiring service, and the spread of ‘service learning,’ the practice of infusing service into the curriculum.

During the 1988 presidential race, the group found surprising receptivity from the Bush campaign organization. YSA was instrumental in helping develop and pass the 1990 National and Community Service Act. Soon thereafter President Bush created the first White House Office of National Service and successful local program models like City Year, Public Allies (whose Chicago program was directed by Michelle Obama), YouthBuild, Teach for America, the Community Health Corps, and local urban conservation corps spread into expanding networks across the country.

The passage and continued funding of the 1993 National and Community Service Trust Act and the creation of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), created AmeriCorps and substantially increased funding for service in every state. In the two decades since, National Volunteer Week, National and Global Youth Service Day (one of our early initiatives at YSA), Make a Difference Day, MLK Day of Service, and most recently the Obama Administration's Inaugural National Day of Service have each inched the ethos of service further into the mainstream conversation.

But ask the average person on the street what ‘national service’ is or if he knows about AmeriCorps and you may get a blank stare. We may not have yet reached the tipping point that makes these ideas or initiatives household words. By any measure though we are much closer to a culture of service today than we were 40 or 50 years ago.

My wife and I are still running that long race every day, working in a parish with Caritas of Port Chester New York. We feed the hungry to the tune of 60,000 meals a year, and clothe and provide regular food distribution to 1000 families in need. Our Day Labor Program assists over 250 mostly Latino immigrant men in their continual struggle to find work and help support their families back home. Coming full circle, I am also working with Saul Alinsky's Industrial Areas Foundation's Westchester United to ensure that local kindergarten programs remain safe from budget cuts in New York, one of nine states without mandatory kindergarten.

It's a gratifying marathon, a life of service, and we could always use more dedicated runners.

GOOD HQ is challenging the community to commit to service throughout 2013. Go here to pledge 1 percent of your time—that’s 20 hours—being part of the solution this year.

Original marathon runner image via Shuttertock

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