The domestic Peace Corps

Most people are familiar with the Peace Corps, where idealistic young people can make a difference in underprivileged countries.  However, not many know about the “domestic Peace Corps,” or AmeriCorps program.  It works much the same way, sending members out across the country to help nonprofit groups do some good.

AmeriCorps officially began in 1993, when President Bill Clinton created the Corporation for National and Community Service.  The corporation brought together two existing programs, VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) and NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps).  Nonprofit and government organizations can apply to the CNCS for AmeriCorps members to spend a year working for their group.  Instead of asking for grant money, they’re asking for manpower.  If the corporation approves the application, it will hire new members for those positions.  The federal government pays the members a living wage for the year and provides health insurance.  At the end of their term, AmeriCorps members receive an educational grant or direct payment of a little over $5,000.

The three branches of AmeriCorps work a little differently.  The National and State division is the largest, overseeing local programs in education, public safety, health and the environment.  The NCCC group is only open to people between 18 and 24.  They provide direct service, such as teaching, restoring wilderness areas or distributing food.  NCCC members relocate to one of five regional campuses and perform their service in teams of 10 to 12.  VISTA members provide indirect service, working behind the scenes to improve the overall capacity of the organization, such as creating new systems or databases or training manuals for volunteers.  The general goal of the VISTA program is to alleviate poverty.

To become an AmeriCorps member, a person must first fill out an application, which is available online at americorps.gov.  There are two deadlines every year, one in April and one in July.  Each applicant receives an interview screening call, in which they answer a few more questions.  If approved, the person will move on to a face-to-face interview.  Notification about final approval should come within two months of the initial application.

Each year, over 85,000 people participate in AmeriCorps, serving more than 3,000 nonprofit groups.  So is it worthwhile for the members?  Most AmeriCorps alumni say “yes.”  For many, it’s a chance to try out a potential career and gain new skills, as well as a year of work experience.  The CNCS recently conducted an eight-year longitudinal study of AmeriCorps members.  They found that the alumni were more likely to work in jobs serving a social good, such as teaching or social work.  They were also more likely to continue volunteering.  Even better, AmeriCorps alumni reported a higher level of life satisfaction than their peers.  For new high school or college graduates, or anyone looking to start a new career, a year with AmeriCorps is definitely worth considering.

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