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1,000 in WA Step Up, Sign On for AmeriCorps

October 21, 2011

OLYMPIA, Wash. - The U.S. Senate wants to keep it; the U.S. House wants to eliminate it. And despite this uncertainty, AmeriCorps is going strong in Washington.

Today (Friday) in Seattle, 1,000 people take their oaths and begin a year of community service. Modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, AmeriCorps pays people a living allowance of $1,100 a month and offers college tuition assistance after their year of service.

Bill Basl is executive director of the Washington Commission for National and Community Service, the state agency that administers AmeriCorps in Washington. For every opening, he says, there are seven applicants - many of them veterans.

"And I think part of this is due to the downturn in the economy. So, AmeriCorps is providing an opportunity for folks to make a sincere contribution, to step up and serve the country at a time when the country needs them the most - which is right now."

He says AmeriCorps funding has been threatened before, making it difficult to plan from year to year.

This year's new members range in age from 17 to 83. They'll tutor in low-income schools, do stream restoration and conservation projects, work at food banks and more, across the state. For the younger AmeriCorps members, it's a chance to check out a career and build work references. But at any age, Basl is convinced the year of service makes people better citizens.

"The long-term investment is, doing a year of national service changes people forever. They're more giving. I think there's a broader sense of compassion and understanding. It allows folks to see life with different perspectives. That is so important."

Those who want to cut the program's funding in Congress say volunteers can do community service work. Basl thinks they're missing the point.

"If we would say, 'Well, you can do this, but you're not going to get a living allowance,' - well, then who would be able to do that? Perhaps only people who have some kind of other support system or are people of means, who could take a year off and do that. But providing a living allowance provides all Americans an opportunity to step up and make a contribution."

Washington has the second-highest number of AmeriCorps members in the nation, at about 1,600. Only California has more.

The oath ceremony for new members is Fri., Oct. 21, 10:00 a.m., in the Fisher Pavilion at Seattle Center. There is more information about AmeriCorps online, at www.ofm.wa.gov/servewa/.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA