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AmeriCorps budget cuts hurt at-risk youth and underserved communities

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In 2014, more than 10,500 of the young people enrolled in our member Service and Conservation Corps were living below the poverty line, on public assistance, or court-involved upon entry into the Corps. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Every year, at more than 15,000 locations across the country, AmeriCorps engages more than 75,000 members and 4 million volunteers in national service. Since the program's inception in 1994, AmeriCorps members have served more than a billion hours. Americans want to serve; in 2012, more than 582,000 people applied for only 82,500 available AmeriCorps positions, which means that 86 percent of applicants were turned away.

There is proof that participating in national service is an effective way for people to build skills and prepare for careers. Yet Congress repeatedly proposes to significantly reduce AmeriCorps funding. This year, there are 73,600 AmeriCorps positions. The current House Bill would cut 25,000 of these slots, while the Senate Bill would cut 20,000. With a reduced AmeriCorps program, young people across the country would miss a valuable opportunity to gain job training, education and leadership skills, and their communities would not receive the vital services that AmeriCorps members provide.

As CEO of The Corps Network, a membership organization that supports more than 100 Service and Conservation Corps, I am extremely concerned about the potential consequences for low-income youth and their communities if Congress follows through with their current plans to cut AmeriCorps.

Related Story: http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/article/2575923
In 2014, more than 10,500 of the young people enrolled in our member Service and Conservation Corps were living below the poverty line, on public assistance, or court-involved upon entry into the Corps. Many of these young adults were also out of school. But instead of seeing them as liabilities, we view them as "Opportunity Youth," because of their enormous untapped potential and their desire to improve their own lives and the world around them.

As an AmeriCorps member in The Corps Network, a young person receives a stipend or living allowance to perform service projects in their communities and on public lands. These projects range from planting trees and gardens, to building playgrounds and parks, to restoring degraded habitats, to weatherizing and retrofitting low-income housing.

Many of these service projects are specifically designed to help low-income communities address environmental justice issues. In order to undertake this work, Corpsmembers learn technical skills and earn professional certifications. Their service term helps them advance their education, gain hands-on work experience and develop skills in communications, teamwork and leadership.

Samuel Myers, a Corpsmember from Youth Conservation Corps — a member program of The Corps Network based in Waukegan, Ill., spoke about how AmeriCorps service has helped transform his life.

"If not for AmeriCorps I would still be on the streets. I would not have career goals — nothing like that," said Myers. "YCC AmeriCorps helped set me straight. [I] feel good at the end of the day because I get to do things for people that they want to do but can't. I wish more people would realize how important [AmeriCorps] is."

Julian Amos is another YCC Corpsmember who said that without the program he "would be on the streets right now." He also pointed to the tangible results of service that he sees in his community.

"Feeding people, and helping build a house for a low-income family — all of that is helping out," he said. "It also helps people like me get to where [we] need to go — into jobs and college. I'm just trying to get my foot in the door."

The opportunity AmeriCorps offers is especially important for people who have limited experience and fewer marketable skills.

As a 2013 study conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Service found that volunteers without a high school diploma are 51 percent more likely to find a job than non-volunteers; people from rural areas who volunteer have a 55 percent greater chance of finding employment than non-volunteers; and volunteers who have been out of work have a 27 percent greater chance of finding a job than out-of-work individuals who do not volunteer.

In short, young people who participate in AmeriCorps — regardless of their socioeconomic background — improve their chances of finding employment, getting on a career pathway and becoming a productive adult and citizen.

The very programs that strengthen our young people, our communities and our nation need to be fortified, not torn down.

Mary Ellen Sprenkel is CEO of The Corps Network. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.