National Service Movement gains speed as Obama sets standard

Martin Luther King, Jr. called on the American people to prove their greatness through community service 40 years ago and President Barack Obama has been echoing the sentiment throughout his recent campaign. In his inaugural speech, President Obama said that “a nation cannot prosper long when it focuses on only the prosperous.” Obama’s campaign has prominently featured the national service movement, especially among young Americans. President Obama himself volunteered on Martin Luther King Day at a youth homeless shelter in Washington, D.C. and asked Americans for “an ongoing commitment to enriching the lives of others in their communities, their cities and their country.”To commemorate Martin Luther King Day in Burlington, Americorps organized a day of service.Community members volunteered at the Good News Garage, the Chittenden County Food Shelf, COTs, the King St. Youth center, the Barnes Elementary School and other locations around Burlington, according to Annie Reinhart, the group leader of the Burlington Americorps vistas. “This was our biggest year, almost 400 people showed up to help,” Reinhart said. “Every site took on more people than they had asked for.”There were even enough extra volunteers to stage an impromptu food drive for the Chittenden County Food Shelf. “Just about 1,000 pounds of food” was collected, Reinhart said.However, local service is not simply an annual event for many UVM students. Service Learning and Volunteers in Action are both programs that ensure that students who wish to volunteer in the community have the opportunity. Volunteers in Action is an umbrella association that includes 18 different programs ranging from Alternative Spring Break, where students spend their vacation doing service projects across the U.S., to DREAM, a youth mentoring program that matches up UVM students and kids from affordable housing neighborhoods.Each year, there are roughly 500 students involved in these programs, Lluvia Mulvaney-Stanak, the assistant director of Community Service Programs at UVM, said. This number has been on the rise, and Mulvaney-Stanak said increased knowledge is the reason for the higher participation.”New students are coming to UVM with more service experience in high school and it is helping to get students involved earlier in their careers at UVM,” she said.At UVM, students are also able to receive class credit for volunteer work through service learning courses. Carrie Howe, associate director of Community-University Partnerships & Service Learning, said there are “about 60 courses a year” that are considered service learning. Such courses exist in most majors. Howe has seen substantial growth in the CUPS program since a formal office was set up five years ago. “The number [of courses] is going up,” she said. “Last year we had 1,100 students involved, this year in just the fall we had over 700” she said.Though many of the service learning opportunities are Burlington-based, there are also chances for students to get credit for work elsewhere. UVM junior Lisa Harris, who has taken multiple service learning courses within her environmental studies major, worked with the CUPS office online over the summer while interning for a non-profit in New Jersey.”I was able to learn about non-profits while working for one. It was a great opportunity to learn that way in an active learning environment.”While many students at UVM take advantage of learning through service, some graduates chose to serve in the classroom in a very different way through Teach for America. Teach for America is a program that places recent college graduates as teachers in some of the worst schools in inner city and rural areas. The program lasts for two years, though some participants continue on to careers in education. Teach for America, while still an emerging program at UVM, has seen enormous growth over the past few years. Since 2004 the number of applications received has tripled, according to The Washington Post, “Applicants Flock to Teacher Corps for Needy Areas.” The current economy has certainly contributed to this increase; the job market is no longer as promising as it once was for college graduates, especially in the business sector. However, Andrea Valle, a recruitment director for Teach for America, believes that it is far more than just the promise of a job that is inspiring students to apply. “They want to make a difference, to make an impact,” she said. “I was amped on the idea of having the opportunity to have a direct impact on people’s lives just one year out of school,” Henry Melcher, a recent UVM graduate currently teaching middle school in Phoenix, Arizona through Teach for America said. “I feel like it would be selfish to pass that up.” Regardless of participants’ good intentions, some within the field of education have had doubts about entirely inexperienced teachers working with some of America’s most at-risk students, according to the Washington Post article. Melcher noted that there was some truth to that concern, “the first few months were like swimming up a waterfall.” Yet he feels certain that he is making a positive impact on his students. “I’m giving these kids my all,” he said.The program serves not only to educate the student, but the teacher, too, in Melcher’s view. “It exposes people, future national leaders, who wouldn’t otherwise know how far behind our education system is, to the problem,” he said.Another program currently gaining popularity that offers a chance to impact young students’ lives along with their community is City Year.City Year is a national program within the Americorps organization. According to their Web site, more than 1,400 young people aged 17-24 participate in City Year each year. Participants in the program work with kids in classrooms and in after school programs. They also seek to “transform their site communities through physical service” according to the City Year Web site.UVM graduate, David Beams spent 2005 in Boston with City Year, teaching sixth and seventh grade middle school classes and helping with after school programs for kids.Beams looks back on his time with City Year positively. “The service you do is important,” he said, “but what you get out of it can be just as important.”Beams credits the program for breaking him out of the comfortable academic sphere. “It broke me out of my bubble. I had gone to private schools my whole life,” he said. “It showed me what the real world is like.”Programs like City Year and Teach for America often inspire members beyond their time limits. Beams is considering returning for a second year at City Year and Melcher is contemplating continuing teaching after his two years with Teach for America are up. National Service may not be a new concept for many, but it is certainly a pursuit that is gaining popularity among UVM students both within and beyond Burlington. It also seems that it will continue to grow under the new president’s watch.”You can’t listen to the president’s inaugural without being excited about doing something,” Andrea Valle said. “There was a precedent set by that speech on Tuesday.”