New AmeriCorps Grants Strengthen Commitment to Veterans

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Veterans and Military Families
Koby Langley

A year ago, I visited the Qi Life Center, a veterans' transition home in Washington, DC. There I met a neatly dressed gentleman who was focused intently at a computer screen. "That's Ken Harris," the center's director said. "When he came to us, he was lost. He's a veteran who has been homeless for almost 20 years since he was discharged. He became homeless the day he left the military."

I asked Ken what he was doing, and he said that he was applying for a home with Habitat for Humanity and it required quite a bit of work. Applicants have to show that they have a transition and stability plan, a pathway to employment, and, most importantly, they have to be willing to put "sweat equity" into the building of their own home.

Veterans Build on the Mall 2013. Corporation for National and Community Service Photo.

From Military Service to National Service

Since the formation of the Corporation of National and Community Service (CNCS) in 1994, more than 7,000 AmeriCorps members have served with Habitat for Humanity to help build homes for individuals and families in need, including veterans like Ken. These AmeriCorps members -- many of them are also veterans themselves -- dedicate an entire year of service to work with non-profits like Habitat for Humanity. They spend a year in voluntary poverty, to help alleviate poverty in their communities -- a truly selfless sacrifice.

CNCS is strengthening its commitment to veterans and military families through recent grant awards including $1.4 million to Equal Justice Works Veteran Legal Corps to support 400 AmeriCorps members with legal training who will address issues that impact homeless vets in 40 states. Another grant to the Student Conservation Association's Veteran Fire AmeriCorps to engage 136 post-9/11 veterans in training that will help them gain valuable skills as they transition back to civilian life.

Home Sweet Home

I ran into Ken again six months later, and this time he was proudly standing on the front porch of the home he helped to build. Ken worked for months and hundreds of hours alongside other AmeriCorps members and community volunteers, who welcomed him his new home and a new phase in his life.

Ken continues to give back since his journey from homeless veteran to homeowner began over a year ago. Recently, he joined a team of AmeriCorps members from Habitat for Humanity's Veterans Corps on the National Mall to build frames for several new homes.

Corporation for National and Community Service CEO Wendy Spencer (left) and Director of AmeriCorps Bill Basl pause for a photo with Regina Best, a U.S. Air Force veteran serving with Habitat for Humanity through AmeriCorps during the Veterans Habitat Build-a-Thon on the National Mall on June 2, 2013. Best overcame homelessness after her military service and now helps others though Habitat for Humanity. (Corporation for National and Community Service Photo)

One of those Habitat AmeriCorps members was Air Force veteran Regina Best. Regina was homeless when she joined AmeriCorps, but now has an apartment and is in college. When I asked her what she was hoping to get out of her AmeriCorps experience, she said, "I already got out of it what I wanted -- a sense of purpose again."

Ken and Regina are just two examples of the impact that national service makes on veterans through AmeriCorps. More than 17,000 veterans have served with organizations like Habitat for Humanity, embracing national service to make a difference in communities nationwide. 

New calls to service are expected from two gatherings of thought-leaders, policymakers, and national and community service advocates as they discuss how Americans can leverage the talents of its veterans on the home front. I imagine that Ken, Regina, and other veterans who have already served another tour of duty in their communities all across America welcome the new attention on the old of idea of selfless service.


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