BRUNSWICK — On Election Day, I want to draw readers’ attention to the often overlooked value that volunteers bring to our communities.

In the early part of the 19th century, a young French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, toured the United States and reported his observations in the two-volume classic “Democracy in America.” In it he recognized and applauded the enduring American value of volunteerism.

He wrote: “When an American asks for the cooperation of his fellow citizens, it is seldom refused; and I have often seen it afforded spontaneously and with great good will.”

Last year, 344,584 Maine residents volunteered 45.6 million hours of service through or for a nonprofit or community organization. They helped their communities by volunteering at soup kitchens, youth sporting activities, conservation groups, arts organizations, churches and many more. That ranks us fourth for the number of hours per person and 16th in percentage of citizens volunteering in the country, in all providing a staggering $1.1 billion of service to communities across the state.

Most volunteer activity requires infrastructure and capacity to succeed and have impact. This year the Corporation for National and Community Service (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 program here as well as organizing the Blaine House Conference on Volunteerism and the Governor’s Volunteer and Service Awards.

Service reaches into every corner of Maine. The Foster Grandparent Program (a Senior Corps program) provides tutors and mentors for children and youth with special needs in cities like Portland and Bangor as well as towns like Cutler, Dover-Foxcroft, Lisbon Falls and Cornish; 97 partnerships across the state in all. Another Senior Corps program, Senior Companion, provided two grants, including one to PROP that worked with 13 community partners from Kittery to Brunswick to provide services to our senior population in York and Cumberland counties.

Americorps members tutor, mentor youth, assist veterans and military families, provide health services, run after-school programs, help communities respond to disasters and build capacity for 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.

National and community service is a cost-effective investment that helps to create jobs, address local issues and sustain struggling communities in these challenging times. In fact, for every federal dollar invested, $2.01 worth of services are provided in return.

Unfortunately, all this important community work may be jeopardized by ongoing budget talks in Washington. On Sept. 29, the House Appropriations Committee released the fiscal year 2012 Labor, Health and Human Services funding bill that recommends funding Senior Corps programs at the 2011 level and eliminating funding for all other CNCS programs including Americorps, VISTA, NCCC, State Commission Grants and the Volunteer Generation Fund, and instructs the National Corporation to prepare to shut down.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved $1 billion to fund the National Corporation and its programs. It is critical that the House adopt the Senate approved funding bill. There is also the risk that the Congressional Super Committee created by the debt ceiling agreement earlier this summer may also eliminate the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Community exists in every neighborhood, town and city across this great state. Let’s continue to make sure that it matters in these difficult times. Please speak up and contact your elected representatives, Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and House members Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree. Tell them to save our national service programs.


– Special to the Press Herald