When Wendy Spencer enters a room, it’s clear she’s on a mission. Her energy and passion for service is surpassed only by her encyclopedic knowledge of the programs under her watch as the nation’s top service advocate. She leads the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that administers AmeriCorps. Spencer can best be described as a dynamo, particularly as she crisscrosses the nation, making the case for investment now in the low-cost, high-yield solutions that national service can offer to some of our nation’s most pressing challenges.
CY: What is it about national service that makes you so passionate about it?
WS: I think it is such a unique American idea that we engage citizens formally to address local problems. There are so many things right about that. With national service, you make a conscious choice to commit one year of your life for a cause. I call it a year of sacrifice to support others. To focus Americans’ time on a community problem is something that money just can’t buy. There is so much that comes with the contribution of one’s time: life experiences, surrounding influences, energy, thoughtfulness, concern. That personal connection that service members achieve, you just can’t put a price tag on it.
CY: How can national service have the greatest impact in schools?
WS: 50 years ago schools were prepared to handle around 15% of kids that were off track. But today children have so many problems that schools aren’t equipped to address. A program like City Year - an AmeriCorps program - can come in and be the implementation partner for those additional supports for children with chronic problems. Principals, counselors and teachers know the children that could use this added support by name, but they don’t always have the time or resources to do it. So AmeriCorps members can come in and address those children, providing direct support, mentoring, tutoring, and emotional support to help them overcome the problems they face, closing the gap for those children so they can have an equal opportunity to learn.
CY: You’ve mentioned that there’s no better time to invest in national service than right now. Why?
WS: We are seeing record applications for AmeriCorps. We turned down a half a million applications last year. I think that’s because people see AmeriCorps as a pathway to other opportunities. National service is perfectly placed to meet that need, now more than ever. But it’s also never been better for other organizations that can benefit from the human capital resources that AmeriCorps can provide. It’s a great cost-effective benefit, not to mention a great benefit for the community.
CY: If there’s one thing about national service that you wish everyone knew, what is it?
WS: I was sitting at a City Year graduation after the first year in Miami, seated next to a principal at a school. When I asked her about her experience, I expected her to respond with the measurable impact statistics – how many students’ grades had grown, and how many students were back on track in attendance. She told me all those things. But she surprised me when she added, ‘I didn’t expect it to change the entire environment in my school, and it did. We have a real can-do spirit in this school thanks to City Year that I just couldn’t foresee when we started.’ I hear that in programs all over the country. I see it in Hurricane Sandy response. I see in conservation programs. These AmeriCorps members are lifting everyone up around them, and that’s contagious.