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Strength through service

Throughout American history, the compassion of our people has gotten us through the most difficult of times. That spirit exists today. The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which recently passed the Senate with broad bipartisan support, will allow us to tap into the strong desire of Americans to do their part to help our country recover and prosper by encouraging volunteerism at every stage of life.
This bill couldn’t come at a more critical time. More and more people need help in this tough economic climate, while more and more of even the most generous among us have less to give. But that’s what makes this legislation so special. It has nothing to do with status, background or circumstance — all Americans are equal in their ability to give of themselves and their time.
No deed is too small. While the average American may not be able to save struggling banks from financial crisis, he or she can help a family to weatherize their home to save money on heating bills, or mentor a child to reach the greatest potential.
The Serve America Act will usher in a new era of service and civic engagement in our nation, where we can help solve some of our most difficult social challenges by using the entrepreneurial spirit to bring about social change. It will build upon great success stories in volunteerism, such as AmeriCorps, by increasing volunteers in federal volunteer programs nationwide from 75,000 to 250,000. In New Hampshire, the Serve America Act will support successful programs such as City Year, which works to reduce the high school dropout rate. City Year volunteers tutored and mentored over 1,200 students in New Hampshire last year alone, and another 350 students took advantage of City Year’s after-school programs.
This legislation also creates several new volunteer organizations with missions in specific areas of national need, including a Clean Energy Corps. While Congress works to position America as a leader in clean energy and energy efficiency, these volunteers will enhance our efforts by encouraging efficiency and conservation measures locally. In New Hampshire, I know volunteers stand ready to make homes more energy efficient or work to preserve our state’s parks, trails and rivers for future generations to enjoy.
I have supported community service throughout my career because I know it empowers citizens and strengthens communities as a whole. As governor, I signed an executive order establishing the N.H. Commission for National and Community Service.
In recent years, community service volunteers have had an enormous impact on our state. According to the Corporation for National & Community Service, over 330,000 volunteers in New Hampshire dedicated over 40 million hours of service in 2007.
One young volunteer in New Hampshire, Jennifer Foshey, volunteered at Hampton Academy through the City Year program. During her year of service, she worked with 6th grade boys who were seriously struggling academically. Jennifer provided one-on-one academic support and individual mentoring, and encouraged these students to get involved in extracurricular activities. Because of her hard work, the boys’ grades improved dramatically, and one of them joined the after-school club Jennifer ran. He was later quoted in the school newspaper saying, “There are kids in our neighborhoods that need help, and it’s our job to help them.” There couldn’t be a better testament to the ripple effect programs like City Year have in communities.
The Serve America Act will build on these successes and encourage a new generation of volunteers to serve. Throughout our history, Americans have responded to serious crises by coming together with the common purpose of making sure our nation emerges even stronger. I have no doubt we will do so now as we confront this economic crisis, and this legislation is an important tool to bring people together for the work ahead.
Jeanne Shaheen is New Hampshire’s junior U.S. senator.