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A Brief History of National Service

When faced with challenges, our nation has always relied on the dedication and action of its citizens. Serve Washington, formerly the Washington Commission for National and Community Service (WCNCS), is proud to carry on a long tradition of citizen involvement by providing opportunities for Americans of all ages to improve their communities through service.

The Civilian Conservation Corps

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps (commonly referred to as the CCC). Four million young people joined in response to his call to service, restoring the nation’s parks, revitalizing the economy, and supporting their families and themselves. For eleven years the Civilian Conservation Corps provided billions of dollars in services and enabled millions of families to live in dignity.

The GI Bill

During the 1940’s, the GI Bill linked wartime service to educational benefits, offering returning World War II Veterans the opportunity to pursue higher education in partial compensation for service to their country. Veterans improved their own lives by attending college. They also contributed mightily to America’s future. With the education they received, those citizens helped spark the economic boom that helped make America the world’s leading economy.

Peace Corps

In the 1960s the call to service came from President John F. Kennedy, who challenged Americans in his inaugural address “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” In response to this challenge, the Peace Corps was born. The Peace Corps continues to engage thousands of volunteers who travel the world far and wide, building schools where none existed, helping farmers provide food for the hungry, and creating hospitals to care for the sick. After returning from overseas, Peace Corps volunteers put their new knowledge of others to work at home, in the spirit of citizenship, changing America for the better.

The War on Poverty

President Lyndon B. Johnson brought the spirit of the Peace Corps home to America by creating Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) in 1964. VISTA (which is now part of AmeriCorps) continues under the sponsorship of local public agencies or nonprofit organizations to improve the condition of people living in under-served, low-income communities throughout America. Other initiatives such as the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), the Foster Grandparent Program, and the Senior Companion Program were developed in order to engage older Americans in the work of improving the nation.

Youth Service Movement

In 1970, Congress created the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC), a summer environmental employment program for youth ages 15-18 with Congressman Lloyd Meeds of Washington and Senator Henry M. Jackson playing prominent leadership roles guiding the passage of the legislation creating this program. In 1978, the Young Adult Conservation Corps (YACC) became part of CETA, but was eliminated in 1982 by the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA), which did not include national service programming. Some components of YCC and YACC remained active in several states, funded through public and private dollars, and in 1976, California became the first state to create its own youth conservation program, the California Conservation Corps. YCC still operates on a limited basis in some national parks and wildlife refuges. Private funders helped create additional youth corps programs during the seventies, including the Youth Volunteer Corps of America, City Year, and YouthBuild. Associations such as Youth Service America and The Corps Network were formed to work with the various youth service movements. Youth service programming grew on college campuses, sponsored by such national programs as the Campus Outreach Opportunity League (COOL) and Campus Compact.

Several states, including Washington, took the lead to help identify possible federal roles to fund and support local youth and conservation corps efforts. Congressmen Jim Seiberling (Ohio) and Leon Panetta (California) finally helped to pass a bill to broaden federal support, but the bill was ultimately vetoed by President Reagan.

In the mid to late 70’s, Washington State was selected as a pilot to operate the Program for Local Service (PLS) funded by the federal ACTION agency. That program utilized the basic concept of VISTA, but devolved all decision-making regarding host site and member selection to local officials. Prior to the PLS, VISTA was a federally-operated enterprise with little local decision-making.

At the local and state level, many youth corps leaders took their vision to municipal and state government and found a much more favorable level of support. In 1983, the state of Washington created the Washington Conservation Corps, modeled after the CCC and a new initiative, the Washington Service Corps - the first state-funded service initiative that placed participants in human service and other nonprofit organizations to help address critical needs. These programs were operational a full ten years before Congress passed the National and Community Service Trust Act that created AmeriCorps.

Revival of Interest in National and Community Service

President George H. W. Bush helped spark a revival of interest in national service when he instituted the White House Office of National Service in 1989. In 1990 Congress passed the National and Community Service Act, which created a Commission on National and Community Service to “renew the ethic of civic responsibility in the United States.” Full implementation began in 1992, when the commission awarded $64 million in grants to support four broad types of state and local community service efforts. These initiatives were the Serve-America programs (then Learn and Serve), which involved school-aged youth in community service and service-learning through a variety of school and community-based activities; Higher Education Innovative Projects aimed at involving college students in community service and at promoting community service at educational institutions; American Conservation and Youth Service Corps, supporting summer and year-round youth corps initiatives that engage both in- and out-of-school youth in community service; and the National and Community Service Demonstration Models, for programs that were potential models for large-scale national service. The National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), started as a demonstration program to explore the possibility of using post-Cold War military resources to help solve problems here at home, was enacted later as part of the 1993 Defense Authorization Act.

National and Community Service Trust Act

President Bill Clinton sponsored the National and Community Service Trust Act, a revision of the National and Community Service Act of 1990, which was passed by a bipartisan coalition of Members of Congress and signed into law on September 21, 1993. The legislation created a new federal agency, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), to administer federally-funded national service programs. The law created AmeriCorps, which was designed to support local, state, and national organizations that involve Americans in results-driven community service.

Service in the New Millennium

In his State of the Union address on January 29, 2002, President George W. Bush called on all Americans to serve their country for the equivalent of two years and announced the creation of the USA Freedom Corps, an umbrella network for volunteerism. A coordinating council housed at the White House and chaired by the President, is working to expand and strengthen federal service programs like the Peace Corps, Citizen Corps, AmeriCorps, and Senior Corps, and to raise awareness of and break down barriers to service opportunities with all federal government agencies.

Serve America Act

President Obama signing the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act.
Photo by M. T.Harmon

On April 21, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. The Serve America Act, which goes into effect on October 1, increases and enhances opportunities for Americans of all ages to serve by increasing AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000 positions over the next eight years, while increasing opportunities for students and older Americans to serve. It will strengthen America’s civic infrastructure through social innovation, volunteer mobilization, and building nonprofit capacity. The new law is also designed to strengthen the management, cost-effectiveness and accountability of national service programs by increasing flexibility, consolidating funding streams, and introducing more competition. For a bill summary, click here.