Congress Embraces Serve America and Encore Fellowships

The national service program Vista helped Gary Maxworthy transition to his encore career: providing free produce to low-income families through his innovative Farm to Family project. Photo by S. Smith/Civic Ventures.

The House of Representatives passed the most inclusive and comprehensive national service legislation in a generation, sending the Serve America Act to President Obama for his signature. Obama is expected to sign the legislation when he returns from his eight-day European trip.

The House passed the bill, officially called The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, by a bipartisan majority of 275 to 149, following last week's 78-20 vote in the Senate.

"“This legislation will help create new opportunities for millions of Americans at all stages of their lives," President Obama said in a statement. "From improving service learning in schools to creating an army of 250,000 volunteers a year dedicated to addressing our nation’s toughest problems. From connecting working Americans to a variety of part-time service opportunities to better utilizing the skills and experience of our retirees and baby boomers."

Among its innovative provisions, Serve America will establish encore fellowships as a pathway to public service for those who have finished their midlife careers.

“For the first time, federal legislation recognizes that a new stage of life and work follows midlife careers and that people in this stage of life need bridges and pathways to get from one stage to the next,” said John Gomperts, president of Civic Ventures. “Given the problems in our nation right now, we can’t afford to waste their experience. This legislation marks the beginning of a new story about how an aging society can use its experience to make a better society for us all.”

Serve America:

  • Establishes Encore Fellowships for Americans age 55 or older in one-year management or leadership positions in nonprofit organizations. There will be a maximum of 10 per state. They will be funded by an $11,000 federal grant, plus matching funds from the organizations that host the fellows.
  • Increases the number of AmeriCorps positions to 250,000 (from 75,000 currently) and targets 10 percent of those slots for people age 55 or older.
  • Allows AmeriCorps members over 55 to use their education awards for their own retooling for encore careers or transfer the awards — increased to $5,350 — to their children and grandchildren.
  • Creates Silver Scholarships that would provide a $1,000 higher education scholarship to people 55 or older who contribute a minimum of 350 volunteer hours a year. Like the education awards, volunteers can use the scholarship for their own education or transfer it to their children, foster children or grandchildren.

“All of these measures will encourage more people over 55 to serve, but more than that, these measures will encourage organizations to recruit more experienced people, create higher-impact volunteer opportunities for people 55+, form multigenerational service teams, and design new programs that take advantage of experience and talent,” said Lester Strong, CEO of Experience Corps. “Today 2000 Experience Corps members in 23 cities help 20,000 young students make dramatic gains in reading achievement. As this legislation shows, legislators have learned to multiply a good thing when they see it.”

Indeed, national service is suddenly hot again. The miserable job market has helped push applications to AmeriCorps to 9,731 in February, more than triple the 3,159 submitted in February 2008. AmeriCorps provides an annual stipend of about $12,000, along with the educational award.

The new legislation identifies five broad target areas for action helping the poor, improving education, encouraging energy efficiency, strengthening access to health care and assisting veterans.

In his statement, President Obama applauded the innovation of community and faith-based organizations. "While our government can provide every opportunity imaginable for us to serve our communities, now it is up to each of us to seize those opportunities. I call on all Americans to stand up and do what they can to serve their communities, shape our history and enrich both their own lives and the lives of others across this country.”

For more details see “A Quick Summary of a Quiet Revolution in National Service.”

Listen to John Gomperts, president of Civic Ventures, answer reporters’ questions about the bill.