With our current dialogue about the economy we often hear only about two sectors, the private and public. Economists will also tell you that there is a third sector, the volunteer.
Often overlooked in our discussions about the health of our communities, the volunteer sector plays a critical role in the quality of life for our citizens. Maine people provide services to their communities volunteering at soup kitchens, youth sporting activities, conservation groups, arts organizations, churches and the list goes on.
Last year, 344,584 Maine residents volunteered 45.6 million hours of service through or for a nonprofit or community organization. We rank 16th among the states in percentage of citizens volunteering, fourth for number of hours per person, in all providing a staggering $1.1 billion of service in our communities.
All of that requires capacity and infrastructure. This year, the Corporation for National and Community Service, or CNCS, will commit more than $7.3 million to support national service initiatives (Senior Corps, AmeriCorps, Learn and Serve America, and other programs) in Maine. The Maine Commission for Community Service administers many of those programs here as well as organizing the Blaine House Conference on Volunteerism and the Governor’s Volunteer and Service Awards.
Let’s take a look for a moment behind the numbers at the services being provided. Take the Foster Grandparent Program (a Senior Corps program) that provides tutors and mentors for children and youth with special needs. They provide service in cities like Bangor and Portland but also have programs in towns like Cutler, Dover-Foxcroft, Lisbon Falls and Cornish; 97 partnerships across the state in all.
AmeriCorps members tutor, mentor youth, assist veterans and military families, provide health services, run after-school programs, help communities respond to disasters and build the capacity of nonprofit groups through three programs: AmeriCorps State and National, AmeriCorps VISTA and AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps). They work at the Maine Farm Bureau in Augusta, Catholic Charities in Caribou, Forrest Hills High School in Jackman, LifeFlight in Camden and Penobscot Community Health in Bangor, serving 98 communities across the state.
Unfortunately, all of this important community work may be jeopardized by budget talks currently on-going in Washington. On Sept. 29 the House Appropriations Committee released the draft fiscal year 2012 Labor, Health and Human Services funding bill that recommends funding Senior Corps programs at the fiscal year 2011 level and basically eliminating funding for all other CNCS accounts including AmeriCorps, VISTA, NCCC, State Commission Grants, the Volunteer Generation Fund, etc.
And while the Senate Appropriations Committee approved funding for all those programs, they can still be subject to elimination by the Congressional Super Committee created by the debt ceiling agreement earlier this summer.
We started this piece by talking about the value of investing in community. We would like to finish by reminding readers that service is an enduring American value and national and community service is a cost-effective investment that helps to create jobs, address local issues and sustain struggling communities. In fact, for every federal dollar invested, $2.01 worth of services are provided in return.
Please call or write to our House and Senate representatives in Washington and urge them to maintain funding for these critical community programs.
John Portela of Brunswick is a member of the Maine Commission for Community Service. The commission also includes: Ron Holmes, New Sharon; Andrew McLean, Gorham; Andrew Matlins, Bangor; Joan McDonald, Biddeford; Barb Wentworth, Saco; Brenda Peluso, South Portland; Mary-Anne LaMarre, Oakland; and Joel Russ, Walpole.