When I introduce myself as an AmeriCorps volunteer, responses tend to vary. Some people I speak with are former members, a few are familiar with the work of AmeriCorps, and many people have never heard of the program. Prior to applying for my position, I knew relatively little about AmeriCorps as well. I certainly was unaware of the diversity of projects available.
AmeriCorps is a domestic counterpart to the Peace Corps. While Peace Corps volunteers serve for two years internationally, AmeriCorps volunteers sign up for one year (really 10 ½ months) of domestic community service. Projects range from healthcare, education, and poverty alleviation to disaster services, public works, and environmental stewardship. Since President Clinton signed the National and Community Service Trust Act into law in 1994, more than 775,000 AmeriCorps members have given over one billion hours of service. AmeriCorps works with organizations that provide critical community and health services, but often operate on a small budget. Utilizing AmeriCorps volunteers helps expand the invaluable impact of these programs. As the cost to participating organizations is quite low, they get a lot of bang for their buck!
Volunteers who join AmeriCorps benefit as well. They receive a modest living stipend each month, enough to rent a room and eat a lot of pasta, and many qualify for student loan deferment. At the end of a successful term of service, each member is granted a $5,550 educational award which can be applied towards future schooling or existing loan forgiveness. Healthcare benefits and childcare are available as well. Perhaps most importantly, as an AmeriCorps volunteer, you know you are doing something positive and gaining valuable experience in the process.
People join AmeriCorps for many different reasons. It is a helpful way to make connections in a new city, it is an excellent way to build community, and it is an opportunity to explore a field of interest. This is, in part, what inspired me to sign up after I graduated from the University of Washington. After graduating, I knew three things: 1) I loved science, 2) I wanted to stay in the Pacific Northwest, and 3) I wanted to work to improve the environment. I considered my options. The job market was not exactly booming, and I wasn’t ready for graduate school. I thought about applying for the Peace Corps, but was uncomfortable committing two years and being sent off into the world to work on an unspecified project. In contrast to the Peace Corps, prospective AmeriCorps members apply directly to the programs of their choice. I learned about AmeriCorps through friends who had previously participated and started looking at listings. The position at Puget Soundkeeper Alliance jumped out at me, and I was lucky enough to be selected.
Serving with Soundkeeper has been an incredibly positive experience. I primarily focus on expanding our volunteer engagement and outreach activities, but I have also had the chance to participate in many of Soundkeeper’s programs. For example, we recently updated our website (ta-da!!!) and I learned the basics of using WordPress. I have attended a number of valuable trainings, given presentations to community groups, developed new educational materials, attended outreach events, coordinated marine debris cleanups, and learned a lot about boating through our weekly patrols. I have also been able to meet other AmeriCorps volunteers. This has been one of my favorite things- there are some real rockstars out there and it is inspiring to meet such dedicated individuals.
My advice to prospective members is to get started early. Most AmeriCorps positions run from September – July, so if you are interested in applying, start looking this summer. You can find a listing of all available positions on the AmeriCorps homepage: www.americorps.gov. I am happy to have a conversation with anyone interested in becoming involved. Keep your eyes peeled for the opening with Soundkeeper!
This video highlights some of the wonderful work AmeriCorps is doing for environmental stewardship in the greater Seattle area.