ServeNext makes national news!

Posted by Zach Maurin on June 10, 2008

Road Trip With a Mission: Expanding National Service.  AmeriCorps alumni and members, are traveling the country by bus for the National Service Express Tour, hitting 30 cities in 60 days while holding meetings and other events to encourage AmeriCorps volunteers and alumni to put pressure on politicians to expand national service.  Cassie J. Moore from wrote about the start, and goals, of this journey. 

Biloxi, Miss. — It’s just beginning to heat up to summertime temperatures on an early afternoon here, low 80s with thick humidity. The little red Toyota Corolla cruises along Beach Boulevard after passing the Hard Rock and the Beau Rivage casinos. To the right are the last living live oaks, reaching wide and twisting over the tops of homes and buildings in various states of disrepair. Every third or fourth lot contains a Tyvek-wrapped, newly reconstructed edifice, almost ready. Less common are the mere foundations, crumbled bricks and cinder blocks, concrete front steps leading nowhere.

 At the left are dead live oaks that were choked with seawater when Hurricane Katrina’s waves jumped the beaches of Biloxi. The dead trees have been carved by chainsaw into animal sculptures. There’s an owl, a heron, a group of gulls, and then, farther out, the beach, with water so bacterially infested that no one swims.

 Sean Edwin, 24, is crammed into the middle back seat of the little car, his face taking the full force of the wind from all four open windows. He doesn’t mind. He has traveled 14,000 miles in the past 45 days by Greyhound bus, where the windows don’t open, so the strong breeze is kind of a luxury.

 Mr. Edwin and his colleague Matthew B. Wilhelm, 26, are traveling the country by bus for the National Service Express Tour, hitting 30 cities in 60 days while holding meetings and other events to encourage AmeriCorps volunteers and alumni to put pressure on politicians to expand national service. Today they are visiting volunteers here who are still working to rebuild the town almost three years after the hurricane.

 ‘Bird-Dogging’ Candidates

 This morning’s ride was easy. New Orleans to Biloxi, about two and a half hours, 87 miles. Mr. Edwin and Mr. Wilhelm make it clear that they have had worse and weirder rides.

 There was the tornado “in Kansas. Or Oz,” says Mr. Wilhelm. A fellow passenger got busted for drug possession around Buffalo, N.Y. The pair dubbed the bus from Los Angeles to Mesa, Ariz., “the Crazy Train” due to the bizarre behavior of some riders.

 AmeriCorps alumni themselves, the young men work for, founded in February 2007 by Mr. Wilhelm and two others. (ServeNext is awaiting approval of its charity status by the Internal Revenue Service.) The group’s ultimate goal is to persuade the next president to commit to expanding AmeriCorps by 100,000 volunteers by the end of his first term, from 75,000 to 175,000.

 ServeNext’s staff and supporters get attention by showing up at political events, such as town-hall meetings or house parties; “bird-dogging” candidates by repeatedly asking them to sign a pledge to expand national service; and blogging about their experiences at They would like to build coalitions to do the same during Congressional campaigns in at least 12 to 15 cities they are visiting on their tour.

 Barack Obama has signed the pledge; John McCain has not, though he has said he is committed to expanding national service.

 High-Tech Tour

 ServeNext’s headquarters are in Washington, but two of its four staff members, all age 26 or younger, live elsewhere. The group’s virtual presence is key: Mr. Edwin’s and Mr. Wilhelm’s pockets are frequently abuzz with technology. They regularly update their blog with text, photos, and video, and “Twitter” — mini-blogs updated via text message — when they catch a free minute. When someone in Biloxi asks for numbers on volunteerism rates after Katrina, Mr. Wilhelm whips out his BlackBerry and fires off an e-mail message to a colleague at ServeNext. Within minutes, he is spouting statistics.

 “People believe in national service,” says Mr. Wilhelm, noting that surveys by the Rockefeller Foundation, in New York, and Harris Interactive, in Rochester, N.Y., show that more than 70 percent of Americans support public service. “Now’s the time we’re actually developing that political muscle and saying we’ve got the voices, we’ve got the constituency, what are you going to do about it? There are votes that you can gain or lose as a result of your plan or lack thereof.”

 They also want to increase the educational stipend for volunteers and raise general awareness about AmeriCorps.

 Mr. Edwin says that while AmeriCorps volunteers and alumni greatly outnumber Peace Corps volunteers and alumni, the global service corps is more familiar to the average American.

 “I’m sick of starting a conversation by saying, ‘It’s the domestic Peace Corps,'” says Mr. Wilhelm. “That’s not really what we are.”

 The vast majority of AmeriCorps members work domestically, and their assignments generally last for about a year, or half of the Peace Corps’s time commitment. They can work in their own hometowns or travel, depending on which program they choose. There are currently about 75,000 AmeriCorps volunteers serving, to Peace Corps’s 8,000.

Building an Identity

 President Clinton created AmeriCorps in 1993 to recruit volunteers across the country to “meet the unmet human, educational, environmental, and public safety needs of the United States,” according to the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993. The budget for the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that oversees AmeriCorps, has decreased every year since 2004.

 The heart of AmeriCorps’s identity crisis lies in the group’s ubiquity. In the case of many Biloxi volunteers, they build houses and playgrounds. They also tutor children or prison inmates. They help the elderly navigate insurance forms. They help nonprofit groups raise money. They can serve part time or full time. They go by different names: state and national volunteers, Vista Volunteers, National Civilian Community Corps.

 “It’s like a Swiss army knife. It can do all this stuff, but it’s a challenge to brand that,” says Mr. Edwin.

 Mr. Wilhelm and Mr. Edwin each served two years as team leaders for City Year, in which volunteers ages 17 to 24 are placed at a school for a year to tutor, mentor, and run leadership programs for children.

 Mr. Wilhelm is the more outgoing of the pair, with a voice fit for the stage or stump, and dramatic expressions. He stands at nearly 6-foot-5, with long limbs that do not fold up comfortably on a bus. Friends compare him to a young Will Ferrell. The bus tour was his idea.

 “We knew that there was power in face-to-face interaction, meeting people on their turf,” he says. “People are honored that you’ve come all this way to see them, to meet them, in their city.” But, he acknowledges, Greyhound’s Discovery Pass — unlimited travel during 60 days for $750 — sealed the deal.

 Mr. Edwin is both more compact physically and a bit more reserved, but quick to flash a huge smile and laugh. He had recently returned to his hometown of Grosse Pointe, Mich., from Europe, where he had been traveling and teaching English for four months, when he heard about Mr. Wilhelm’s plans for the tour. He immediately offered to come along.

 “He wrote me an e-mail that said, ‘I’m living at my parents’ house, I’m unemployed, and I have $100 in my bank account,'” says Mr. Wilhelm, who welcomed the company, though he was originally planning to go alone.

 Both men are intensely committed to public service — they are taking time during the tour to serve alongside current AmeriCorps volunteers in places like New Orleans’s Upper Ninth Ward, where they hung drywall a few days ago — but they both also love to travel.

 “I just like riding buses,” says Mr. Edwin. “By the end of this trip, after about six months of traveling, I will have been to 55 cities between four countries. So I don’t mind this, I love seeing new cities, I like meeting people who are involved, who are engaged in their communities and make really incredible stuff happen everywhere.”

 Volunteer Headquarters

 In Biloxi, the pair tour the east side of town with Caitlin Brooking, acting director of Hands On Gulf Coast, and Will Chrysanthos, an AmeriCorps volunteer at the organization, which enlists volunteers to help the region recover from Hurricane Katrina.

 As Mr. Chrysanthos drives, Ms. Brooking points out murals that Hands On painted, houses constructed “by 18 year olds,” playgrounds they have improved. Pulling up to a newly built house on Lameuse Street, Mr. Chrysanthos says, “They’re delivering the cabinets — yessss!”

 That evening, Mr. Edwin and Mr. Wilhelm oversee a meeting at Hands On headquarters, a colorful and funky space the size of a school gymnasium behind the Beauvoir United Methodist Church.

 The first floor holds offices, a kitchen, a large dining and meeting area, computer clusters, and a lounge space with couches and old easy chairs draped in sheets. The second level is where many of the AmeriCorps and other volunteers actually live.

 Tangerine and hot-pink blankets hang from clotheslines separating the “rooms” where about 30 people sleep each night. Shirts, posters, and stuffed animals decorate the hall, souvenirs from volunteer teams who have worked with Hands On during alternative spring breaks and other trips. Outside sit three shower stalls, next to sheds full of shovels. A sign warns volunteers to clean up “paper, water bottles, pens, Mardi Gras beads, staplers, ramen noodle wrappers, mini tambourines, or toilet paper. No bright red wigs either!”

 At a roundtable discussion, many volunteers say they came to AmeriCorps not only to help others, but also to take on the sort of responsibility that a typical entry-level job doesn’t offer.

 “I have a ridiculous amount of responsibility for the experience I have,” says Leah Lyman, 24, who, after only one year of Spanish classes, is a Spanish-language caseworker and program developer through AmeriCorps at El Pueblo the Village, a charity that provides services and community-organizing opportunities to the area’s Latino residents and homeless people. As one of four staff members, she helped the group incorporate as a nonprofit organization, assisted in the opening and management of its homeless day center, and is also an English-as-a-second-language teacher. She says she has “learned a lot on the fly.”

 Ms. Brooking says that while “some people crumble under the pressure, a lot of people really rise.”

 As of Hurricane Katrina’s two-year anniversary last August, 10,000 AmeriCorps members had served in the Gulf Coast. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, those members have mobilized or managed 230,000 non-corps volunteers, or about a quarter of the total 1.1 million volunteers who have served there.

 At the meeting, the volunteers agreed that AmeriCorps needed greater visibility, and they were interested in learning more about campaigning. Ian Schlake, an AmeriCorps volunteer with Hands On, says in an e-mail message that Mr. Wilhelm and Mr. Edwin spoke to a “very necessary need.”

 “With ServeNext to offer a little structure and the pointed goal — not broad political action, but narrow advocacy for something close to everyone’s heart — I think we can broaden the [AmeriCorps] program in the coming years,” Mr. Schlake writes.

 As the meeting ends, Mr. Edwin says he cannot take any more Southern food, so he and Mr. Wilhelm join Ms. Brooking and others at a Mexican place down the road. The pair are fueled by a silly, delirious exhaustion, clapping and harmonizing with the in-house singer on “La Bamba” and “Drift Away.”

 They have 14 more days to go, but they will sleep well tonight in the communal bunks at Hands On. They’re catching a break this weekend. Mr. Wilhelm is flying back to Boston for a couple of days to see his fiancée, after more than a month of separation. Mr. Edwin is going to hang out in New Orleans, with which he has fallen in love.

 After that, the bus rolls on, to Miami, then Columbia, S.C., then to Atlanta, for the National Conference on Volunteering and Service.

 Mr. Edwin leans over the table, laughing. “Matt just turned to me and said we should have a party in Boston at the end of the tour,” he says, “and his eyes are sunk into his head, he’s so tired.”

The original story link valid for 5 days (membership required beyond 6/14).


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