By Ramona du Houx

July 5th, 2009

On the same day Maine celebrated its volunteers with the Governor’s Community Service awards ceremony at the state house, President Barack Obama signed his wide ranging community service bill.

The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, signed on April 21, 2009, will more than triple the number of AmeriCorps volunteers to over 250,000. The law is a resounding call to action for the American people.

Maine is already at the forefront of community action. Ranking second in the nation for community service. “It wouldn’t surprise me if we were first,” said Governor John Baldacci. “There are so many people that help others, who never take the credit. They aren’t apart of statics but they are out there and deserve credit.”

According to statistics accountable community service hours put in by volunteers were valued at over $864,000 last year, in Maine.

It’s a record the Governor said he was proud of and one that makes the state so special.

“When I talk to visitors they tell me, ‘of course we came for your natural resources, it’s beautiful here. But more than anything, we came because people in Maine treat us so well.’ That’s the spirit of the people of Maine, which shines with their volunteer efforts,” said the Governor. “The people here today represent hundreds of thousands of volunteers across the state. They are the glue that holds families and communities together. They help to make Maine the special place that it is.”

That Maine community spirit translates into people volunteering for any cause that speaks to their hearts, often consuming and transforming their lives.

“Maine is a huge and diverse state. We have a tradition from generations before us of neighbors helping neighbors and volunteering. When I look at all the honorees today I get excited seeing so many youth represented here today,” said the Director of Maine’s Commission for Community Service, Carol Ann Dubee. The Commission has given out The Governor’s service awards for twenty-one years.

The sea change with more youth volunteers is significant and bodes well for the future according to one of the Service Commissioners Mary-Anne Beal. “This year we had ninety four nominations for volunteer awards in the different categories. Typically we have about fifty. Last year we didn’t have any nominations for the Youth Service award, this year we had a tremendous response. It’s exciting for our future.”

Some of the youth volunteers that received awards are continuing on a family tradition, like Sam Hodsdon who at fourteen joined the Cumberland Fire department. He said, “My dad and sister were the first to join the fire department. I just love helping people and my community.”

As for the future Hodsdon, who has won local awards, wants to study architecture at Southern Maine Community college while being a live in fireman. “Right now I’m in a EMT class.”

James Knight, who won the Youth of the Year award decided to go against trends and encourage his peers and younger kids to have fun away from electronic devices. He’s an honor student in his junior year in high school and manages to find time to volunteer at the Game Loft, in Belfast. “It was just something I felt we needed,” said Knight. He also helped develop and implement a twelve week program that promotes youth development.

Once a person volunteers, more often that not, they continue to do so. Such is the case with The National Service Volunteer Award, Jenni Ricci.

Ricci’s energy and enthusiasm for community volunteerism is contagious according to Joely Ross, the AmeriCorp organizer who is in charge of seventy service students. “She’s outstanding and goes beyond what an average AmericaCorps worker does.”

Ricci started out in high school volunteering in a program called Learn and Serve.
“During my first stint in AmericCorps I opened an afterschool café for at risk teens which is still running in Oxford Hills, after eight years,” said Ricci. “In college I wanted to do another teen initiative with AmeriCorp so I became a programs coordinator for Habitat for Humanity in Portland.”

The position gave Ricci the freedom to experiment with the program. As a result of her initiatives she has recruited more than two hundred new volunteers, focusing on youth participation. She established a website and continues to launch new innovative programs.

“I wanted to engage more youth so I got local and national musicians like Jars of Clay or Plane White Tees to build houses with us,” said Ricci (photo at the top of the page). “This weekend we’re having a lego event competition. So kids can build a house. Their constructions will be judged by local architects and the winner will have a life size house built out of duplos.”

AmeriCorps changed Ricci’s life and she feels others could, “become the change if they were aware of the opportunities. I feel inspired by youth.”

AmeriCorps has seen a recent surge in applications, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees the program.

In March, the organization received 17,038 online AmeriCorps applications, nearly double those received in the previous month and nearly triple the 6,770 received a year ago. The Peace Corps had three applications for every position available last year and 35,000 young people applied for only 4,000 slots in Teach for America.

“Even as so many want to serve, even as so many are struggling, our economic crisis has forced our charities and non-for-profits to cut back,” said President Obama. “What this legislation does, then, is to help harness this patriotism and connect deeds to needs. It creates opportunities to serve for students, seniors, and everyone in between. It supports innovation and strengthens the nonprofit sector. And it is just the beginning of a sustained, collaborative and focused effort to involve our greatest resource — our citizens — in the work of remaking this nation.”

Now, AmeriCorps has new areas for people of all ages to get involved.

The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act triples the size of the AmeriCorps service program over the next eight years, and expands ways for students and seniors to earn money for college through their volunteer work. Known as the Give Act the law aims to give opportunities to people to make a difference, in their communities while giving them something back.

On average, AmeriCorps volunteers earn about $1,000 a month, plus housing assistance and medical benefits. In addition, volunteers are eligible for education awards. The new law increased that award to match the current Pell Grant at $5,350. The education award would then keep pace with Pell Grant increases in the future.

The bill also establishes a program for middle and high school students called “Summer of Service,” where volunteers, from sixth grade through their senior year of high school, can receive a $500 education award to be used for college costs.

The bill further integrates volunteer work into earning money for college. People 55 and older could earn $1,000 education awards, which can be transferred, to a child, grandchild or even someone they chose to mentor.

In addition to a dramatic expansion in the number of volunteers for AmeriCorps, the law creates four new service corps in the model of AmeriCorps—providing educational grants and stipends to support and encourage service to the community.

The new service corps are:

• Clean Energy Corps to encourage energy efficiency and conservation measures
• Education Corps to help increase student engagement, achievement and graduation
• Healthy Futures Corps to improve health care access
• Veterans Service Corps to enhance services for veterans as well as be a reserve corps of former national service participants and veterans who will be trained to deploy, in coordination with FEMA, in the event of disasters.

U. S. Representative Chellie Pingree called the new law, “an important call to service for the entire country. It will offer opportunities to people of all ages, races, and backgrounds to get involved in their communities and make lasting changes to the places they live.”

Pingree introduced an amendment that became part of the final version of the bill which expands the Clean Energy Corps to include any activity, “providing clean energy services designed to meet the needs of rural communities.”

When Pingree spoke in favor of her amendment on the floor of the House, she told the story of people in her community who came together to propose a wind turbine project that will provide power for two offshore islands—North Haven and Vinalhaven. She said, “the project could not happen without the volunteer efforts of dozens of people in our community who have donated thousands of hours to make this clean energy project a reality.”

“The amendment specifically extends additional opportunities for volunteerism in rural areas like Maine,” said Pingree. “So we can help encourage and support citizens of all ages who want to contribute to our clean energy future, whether that means working on local projects like the Vinalhaven wind turbine or community weatherization projects to help save energy resources.”

The service act will support community service innovation and strengthen the nonprofit sector by:

• Creating a Social Innovation Fund to expand proven initiatives and provide seed funding for experimental initiatives.

• Establishing a Volunteer Generation Fund to award grants to states and nonprofits to recruit, manage, and support volunteers and strengthen the nation’s volunteer infrastructure.

• Authorizing Nonprofit Capacity Building grants to provide organizational development assistance to small and mid-size nonprofit organizations.

Maine’s population is just over 1.2 million and close to thirty four percent devote time to volunteer.

“Maine’s volunteer force is more than 350,000 strong,” said Baldacci. “The kind of service Maine people give is representative in The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act.”

According to Beal The Maine Commission of Community Service has planed a retreat in June to examine the Give Act and make sure the state gets the most out of the opportunities the legislation provides.

The Governor’s Community Service Awards:

• Volunteer of the Year: Heidi Bowden of Augusta

• National Service Volunteer Award: Jenni Ricci – Habitat for Humanity of Greater Portland

• Outstanding Public Sector Volunteer: Jackie Ayotte – St. Agatha Public Library

• Excellence in Volunteer Administration: Steven Hurd – Togus Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Augusta

• Youth Volunteer of the Year: James Knight – The Game Loft in Belfast

• Corporate Volunteerism Award: Hannaford

• Small Business Volunteerism Award: Bayside Supermarket, Millbridge

• Outstanding Non-Profit Award: Trekkers

• In addition to the eight award winners, nearly 50 Exemplary Service Awards were recognized.