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Originally published Thursday, October 20, 2011 at 9:02 PM

1,000 to take AmeriCorps pledge

An estimated 1,000 AmeriCorps members will take an oath of service Friday, joining a program that's been called a domestic Peace Corps. The swearing-in comes as a troubled economy is helping to drive up interest in the 18-year-old program even as its funding is in jeopardy.

Seattle Times staff reporter

About AmeriCorps

AmeriCorps was created in 1993 to bring a range of domestic community-service programs under a central organization.

It incorporated and supplemented two existing programs: VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), created in 1964, and the National Civilian Community Corps, which traces its roots to the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps.

The first class of 20,000 AmeriCorps enlistees began service in 1994 in more than 1,000 communities nationwide. Since then, more than 540,000 Americans have served in AmeriCorps.

Participants pledge a year of service, and receive a stipend, now $1,100 a month, plus a $5,550 grant for educational costs after a year of service.

There now are about 75,000 AmeriCorps members nationally, including just over 3,000 in Washington.

More information: Nationally: www.americorps.gov. Washington State: www.ofm.wa.gov/servewa

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On any given day, some may be clearing trails on Mount Rainier while others tutor Seattle schoolchildren in reading or math.

Others may be fixing up houses for low-income families in White Center, or helping domestic-violence and crime victims around King County.

And that's just a small sample of what members of AmeriCorps do. From Bellingham to Vancouver, Seattle to Spokane, they perform public-service work — for minimal compensation — for hundreds of schools, nonprofit organizations and local government agencies. And when disaster strikes in other states, some hit the road to help out.

On Friday, some 1,000 AmeriCorps members will gather at Seattle Center to take an oath of service in a program that's been called the domestic Peace Corps. The swearing-in comes as a troubled economy is increasing AmeriCorps' pool of applicants even as the program's funding is in jeopardy in Congress.

Those gathering Friday will pledge to bring Americans together — to meet apathy with action, adversity with perseverance.

"It's a pretty powerful moment," said John Gomperts, AmeriCorps national director, traveling from Washington, D.C. for the event, which will draw roughly a third of all AmeriCorps members serving in the state.

Among the oath-takers will be Ryan Peterson, 27, of Tacoma, an Army veteran who learned about AmeriCorps "when I was on the Internet looking for a job and I just kind of stumbled into it."

Married and the father of a 2-year-old son, Peterson has worked for a security company and a limousine-detailing service, but didn't view either as a long-term career. "This sounded perfect," said Peterson, who'll spend his year on environmental-conservation projects. "I could do something I love and improve my community."

Public service

More than half a million Americans have served through AmeriCorps since it was created 18 years ago to bring together a variety of public-service programs.

Members pledge a year or two of service and receive an average stipend of $1,100 a month, plus $5,500 in credit for college at the completion of a year's work.

Gomperts said Washington state has been a national innovator in AmeriCorps. He cited a reading-tutoring project begun in 1999 that now helps thousands of schoolchildren each year.

And in a newer program, military veterans help service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to connect with jobs, training and types of support.

But now the program's continued existence is uncertain.

A budget proposal in the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee would virtually dismantle AmeriCorps, while a Senate committee version would fund it at close to present levels.

The Obama administration had proposed increased support for AmeriCorps, and the program has received bipartisan support in the past.

As many job sources have dried up, more Americans considered service in AmeriCorps.

In 2008, Gomperts said, 360,000 people applied for 80,000 to 90,000 positions nationwide. The following year, virtually the same number of openings drew 536,000 applicants — nearly a 50 percent increase.

In Washington state, the average number of applicants for each AmeriCorps opening went from five in 2008 to eight last year, said Bill Basl, executive director of the Washington Commission on National and Community Service.

Some AmeriCorps programs have been especially competitive: A conservation crew in Skagit County, for example, fielded 70 applications for two openings.

Training

In Port Townsend this week, some 200 AmeriCorps members underwent training through the Washington Conservation Corps (WCC). They will be placed around the state to work on environmental protection, wildlife-habitat enhancement and other conservation efforts.

Training sessions ran the gamut — filling and stacking sandbags to setting up an emergency-response team. Members even got a session on developing a personal budget and savings plan, a necessity on the limited income provided.

Alicia Kellogg, 25, of Orting, is among the new members. She graduated from the University of Washington in 2009 with degrees in linguistics and technical communication. During a year working at an Eastside software company, "I discovered I hate being stuck inside."

More recently, she worked two internships at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. At this point, she thinks her dream career might be as a wildlife biologist for a national park.

Nick Mott, WCC program director, said about half of the new members in WCC AmeriCorps positions have four-year college degrees. He's worried that the country may be producing "a lost generation" of educated, but unemployed, young adults.

Mott said the skills and contacts AmeriCorps members gain could open doors to a variety of careers.

Occasionally, AmeriCorps members are dispatched to help with emergencies elsewhere: A 12-member WCC team including 10 AmeriCorps members spent four weeks earlier this year on relief work after tornadoes hit the St. Louis and Joplin areas in Missouri.

Most — but not all — AmeriCorps members are in the early stages of their careers. Elementary-school tutoring programs, for example, have attracted participants ranging into their 80s. Older AmeriCorps members can transfer their education grant to the college expenses of a child or grandchild.

Gomperts said the federal government spent $550 million last year in AmeriCorps grants and education allowances.

In Washington state, $12.8 million in federal aid covered 56 percent of AmeriCorps' total program funding, with the rest coming from state and local governments and the agencies that sponsor AmeriCorps members.

Basl said the fact that AmeriCorps members work in such divergent fields, and are spread across the state, gives heightened importance to Friday's gathering.

"It's a chance for them to look around and see what AmeriCorps looks like," he said. "It's an opportunity for folks from all backgrounds to step forward and say they are committed to making a difference."

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com

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