WILMINGTON, Del. – Today, U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) and AnnMaura Connolly, President of Voices for National Service, held a media conference call to discuss new legislation being developed by a working group of Democratic senators to expand national service programs amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The senators are working to include the proposal in the next COVID-19 relief package.

“[W]e’ve got a very engaged and inspiring group of senators negotiating, talking, detailing with the input of our staff and some critical national organizations exactly how best to use national service as the way to respond to this moment,” said Senator Coons. “[A]s our country faces the dual challenge of responding to a global pandemic, a national public health crisis, and a very sharp economic crisis, I think this is exactly the time for us to call on Americans to respond and to serve.”

“There’s much more to do around contact tracing, there’s much more to do about helping those that are going to be hit hard by the economic situation, access services, gain skills, and possible employment, and there’s a lot more to do ensuring that low-income communities are prepared for additional social distancing measures. AmeriCorps members can continue to help vulnerable populations access food, medicine, and other services, and over the long-term national service in AmeriCorps and Senior Corps will be an important vehicle to help our Americans contribute, earn a stipend, and gain skills in the economy,” Connolly said. “We think national service has a tremendous role to play in helping our communities and our country not just respond but also recover from the pandemic.” 

Full transcript available below.

Sen Coons: Good morning, everybody. Thanks for joining AnnMaura and me for a few minutes. I’m honored to be on the phone with AnnMaura Connolly who’s the president of Voices for National Service. A real veteran of our national service movement, AnnMaura understands the unique ways in which the programs of the Corporation for National Community Service, AmeriCorps, Vista, and CCC Senior Corps help inspire and engage Americans of all ages and backgrounds to give back to our community. I just wanted to take a few minutes at the outset and say that as our country faces the dual challenge of responding to a global pandemic, a national public health crisis, and a very sharp economic crisis, I think this is exactly the time for us to call on Americans to respond and to serve.

I’ve been personally involved in national service programs throughout my career. I launched and ran one of the first national direct AmeriCorps programs in the 90s with the I Have a Dream Foundation and it provided education support for young people in inner-city schools, and as a county executive 15 years later, I helped coordinate a first responder corps here in Delaware that helped our volunteer fire service with recruitment, training, and support for firefighters and EMTs. So, I’ve seen them work in person and I’ve seen the impact that they can have, and I just wanted to say that we’ve got a very engaged and inspiring group of senators negotiating, talking, detailing with the input of our staff and some critical national organizations exactly how best to use national service as the way to respond to this moment.

There are existing statutory authorities like the Edward M. Kennedy National Service Act that authorizes 250,000 AmeriCorps slots a year, there is an existing national network of state and territorial commissions that help design and fund programs that recruit and train and place young Americans in national service every year, and there are today 75,000 Americans in service through AmeriCorps. As governors and mayors and public health leaders around the country are asking the present question, how do we rapidly recruit and train and scale up a workforce that can do testing and contact tracing and community outreach so that we can get back to a functioning economy and a functioning society, I think we have a ready-made national network of appropriate resources and people who if we engage them can be that critical pandemic help response corps at the most basic level.

A group of us are working both on how do we strengthen the public health system, the CDC and all the state and territorial public health offices and officials, and how could we possibly use national service, AmeriCorps and CCC to recruit and train and place the more than 100,000 people a year that the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials have said in a recent study need to be scaled up and deployed as quickly as possible. Let me just also mention one other feature and then ask AnnMaura to speak, AmeriCorps members get a modest stipend. Right now, it’s about minimum wage for their year of service and they earn an education award. Right now, it’s about the amount of a Pell grant or about $6,000. 75,000 Americans are in AmeriCorps right now but several times that applied for and wanted to be part of national service. I think this is a unique opportunity for us to recognize the skills of those who are passionate about national service, to compensate them appropriately, to give them the resources to actually attend university, and to build a lasting support for public health and other vital national needs in response to this pandemic such as dealing with hunger and nutrition issues, conservation issues, and workforce issues.

Let me just briefly mention that Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a seasoned veteran of both our military and the national service movement, worked along with the late John McCain to create a commission that just delivered its report on national service. It’s the commission on military, national, and public service and its final report just came out last month. The website inspire two - the number two - serve dot gov [inspire2serve.gov] details their very comprehensive proposals for how to deploy citizen service response to our challenges. And Jack is the lead author of the Action for National Service Act; a bill that has already been introduced and vetted over several Congresses and enjoys wide support in our caucus.

We also have folks who themselves were members of national service in Congress today. Martin Heinrich, a senator from New Mexico, was in one of the Conservation Corps through the Fish and Wildlife Service, Chrissy Houlihan, a congresswoman from Pennsylvania, was in Teach For America, one of the national AmeriCorps programs, and Tammy Duckworth, a decorated veteran of our military, is also someone who has been legislating in this area. So we have a broad representative group: Senators Reed, and Duckworth, and Heinrich, as well as Klobuchar, Markey, Heinrich, Blumenthal, and others who’ve been discussing why national service is uniquely positioned to quickly respond to the pandemic challenges that we face and why national service is the best way moving forward to help power our recovery out of this.

So with that, let me turn it over to AnnMaura Connolly who better than anyone I know understands the trajectory, the arc, the power, and the capability of national service to strengthen our country. 

AnnMaura Connolly: Thanks, Senator Coons, and thank you for your extraordinary leadership of AmeriCorps and Senior Corps and national service in our country. We are truly grateful to you for your decades of support. I just want to talk a little bit about the role that AmeriCorps members are currently playing, helping communities respond to the current… AmeriCorps members are playing a key role in helping communities respond to the COVID-19 pandemic already, and there’s a tremendous amount of potential for this kind of support to be expanded.

They’re assisting with intake at drive-through COVID-19 testing sites, they’re organizing blood drives, their setting up temporary isolation sites, delivering emergency food and supplies to vulnerable populations, making support calls to elderly and medically-fragile community members, supporting students in low-income communities to mitigate the learning loss resulting from school closures, and a lot more. I can share a few examples. AmeriCorps members with the National Health Corps are serving in a variety of ways in several states including conducting phone triage to direct clients to medical services because the health clinics where their serving are just overwhelmed by the scale of the need. They are also screening clients for COVID-19 symptoms and providing referral to testing, ensuring that patients the rely on life-saving medications for chronic health issues such as heart disease and diabetes continue to receive their medications, and they are coordinating volunteer activities in response to COVID-19 at the health clinics, nonprofits, and hospitals where they serve.

In Michigan, the Cherry Hill AmeriCorps program, their members are screening staff and patients for COVID-19 symptoms as they enter and exit the building, their creating and distributing lists of resources for vulnerable populations in Muskegon as well as making support calls and facilitating virtual support groups for populations with severe and persistent mental illness. AmeriCorps members serving with the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless program are staffing an isolation tent in a large testing center helping homeless patients in isolation figure out where they will go and how they will get necessities such as food after they are released, and they are also delivering food, diapers, and cleaning supplies to formerly homeless families that can’t venture out because of medical vulnerabilities. AmeriCorps Vista members are serving with the United Way to staff 211 call lines that have seen a dramatic increase in calls from community members seeking support as a result to the COVID-19 pandemic, and increasingly AmeriCorps programs are being asked to assist with the contact tracing. Many AmeriCorps members are serving in the education space for example AmeriCorps members serving through City Year are supporting students as the transfer to distance learning by providing virtual academic, social, and emotional supports to help mitigate the disruption in learning caused by COVID-19. And there is so much more to do. 

We are going to need to help our students get back to school, readjust, and catch up. Many of them are going to be years behind in academics. There’s much more to do around contact tracing, there’s much more to do about helping those that are going to be hit hard by the economic situation, access services, gain skills, and possible employment, and there’s a lot more to do ensuring that low-income communities are prepared for additional social distancing measures. AmeriCorps members can continue to help vulnerable populations access food, medicine, and other services, and over the long-term national service in AmeriCorps and Senior Corps will be an important vehicle to help our Americans contribute, earn a stipend, and gain skills in the economy.

Just as the CCC did after the Great Depression we think national service has a tremendous role to play in helping our communities and our country not just respond, but also recover from the pandemic.

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