National Prevention Strategy Series: Corporation for National and Community Service

Dec 27, 2012, 11:30 AM

Corporation for National and Community Service CEO Wendy Spencer on the value of volunteering

As the year draws to a close, the most recent installment of the NewPublicHealth series on the National Prevention Strategy is especially appropriate. We spoke with Wendy Spencer, the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a federal agency that engages more than 5 million Americans in volunteer community service. The mission of CNCS is to improve lives, strengthen communities, and foster civic engagement through service and volunteering.

 Guiding principles of CNCS that help promote the National Prevention Strategy include:

  • Put the needs of local communities first
  • Strengthen public-private partnerships
  • Use programs to build stronger, more efficient, and more sustainable community networks capable of mobilizing volunteers to address local needs, including disaster preparedness and response
  • Build collaborations wherever possible across programs and with other federal programs
  • Help rural and economically distressed communities obtain access to public and private resources
  • Support diverse organizations, including faith-based and other community organizations

During Hurricane Sandy, which struck the East Coast in late October, close to 900 national service members were deployed to states affected by the storm, and nearly 900 more were on standby. National service members assisted with shelter operations, call centers, debris removal, and mass care. “Before the recovery is complete,” said Wendy Spencer, “we expect thousands of national service members from AmeriCorps and Senior Corps programs to help families and local and state officials rebuild these communities.”

For its Hurricane Sandy response effort, CNCS coordinated with the Federal Management Agency (FEMA), National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, the American Red Cross and state and local authorities.

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Wendy Spencer, the CEO of CNCS, Asim Mishra, the agency’s chief of staff and Erwin Tan, MD, the CNCS designee on the National Prevention Council and Director of Senior Corps and Strategic Advisor for Veterans and Military Families.

NewPublicHealth: What is the mission of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS)?

Wendy Spencer: Our mission is to improve lives, strengthen communities and foster civic engagement. Through our various programs, including the 9/11 and Martin Luther King days of service, AmeriCorps and the Social Innovation Fund, we serve more than 70,000 sites across the country, where national service members and community volunteers are serving in areas of education, health, the environment, supporting military families and disaster services.

Our partners include the Points of Light Foundation, United Way volunteer centers and United Ways across the country.

NPH: Why is health a priority for the agency?

Wendy Spencer: We believe that service is a very powerful way, a very smart and cost-effective way to engage a human capital solution to meet health needs on the ground and in communities, and we know that research also shows that volunteering has health benefits for those who serve, especially our older volunteers. I speak about this a lot because I’m always in the position to encourage volunteerism, and one of the ways I do, especially with our older population, is to tell them that volunteering lowers stress, makes people feel active and being out in the community is so much better for someone than being isolated at home.

The Serve America Act, which was signed into law in 2009, focused service on a core set of national issues and health is one of those primary issues.

NPH: How do your volunteers help promote some of the key initiatives of the National Prevention Strategy?

Wendy Spencer: One way are citizens serving through our programs to help seniors stay in their homes for as long as possible. Last year our investment was around $60 million in independent living and our Senior Corps participants served more than 700,000 elderly citizens. The activities that we work in range from delivering meals and providing transportation to medical appointments and others, to helping with household chores and giving respite care to caregivers.

We had a group of Senior Corps participants with us at the White House recently and members of a senior program from Kansas told me that their work saved the state $111,000 per year, because the group delivers 650 homebound seniors in one county. If those seniors getting meals at home had to be moved to a nursing home, the cost would be more than $35 million. So, our support of a very low cost, mission driven, kind of that human touch support, really has an economic benefit even beyond the personal lives that we’re touching.

Another way that citizens serving direct programs are improving the health of Americans is by helping provide safe, healthy and affordable housing. One of my favorite examples is Habitat for Humanity, and they have been a partner with us since the beginning. Over 7,000 AmeriCorps members have served more than 12 million hours to provide 15,000 families with decent, affordable homes that they can live in. That’s a very significant program.

NPH: How are you intersecting with other federal agencies?

Wendy Spencer: Fortunately, when I walked in and there were already some wonderful partnerships going on. We do spend a lot of time and effort reaching in to other agencies, and one important example is with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Our partnership with the USDA supports the USDA Summer Food Service Program. The program places AmeriCorps members throughout the country to increase access to nutritional meals for kids from low-income homes when school’s out. Over 100 AmeriCorps VISTA members work on the program at the local level to build capacity so that kids don’t go hungry when school is out. In the summer, when children don’t have the pattern of school days during which they can receive free and subsidized meals at school; we can’t know that children are eating nutritional meals and having nutritional snacks. Through the USDA partnership, we can meet that need.

NPH: How has the National Prevention Strategy helped better define your mission?

Wendy Spencer: I think the National Prevention Strategy places our work of tapping service to improve health in a much larger context. It’s a great opportunity for us to think big and take our resources and work with our partners, our grantees, our state commissions to a grander scale. There are state commissions in every state and they have a large purview to work and engage citizens in service to meet states’ needs. And in every state in America it’s a priority for governors, for mayors, for state and local legislators for citizens to have great access to health information and to health care, so that they can have a strong, healthy future. And we’re happy that we can engage citizens to do so.

We’re also currently focusing on some populations that we feel need some increased attention including our veterans and their families. We’re reaching out to our tribal nations. We want to work closely to support everyone in a community to make sure that they have access to healthy food and a healthy environment and good physical activity. I’ve seen a real surge in teaching communities and community leaders and neighbors and neighborhoods how to build gardens.

On a personal note, I’d like to add that when I joined CNCS just a few months ago, I moved to Washington, D.C., from Florida and I didn’t bring a car. I’m walking a mile to work every day. I walk to meetings. I just got back walking a mile to a meeting and I feel healthier, I’m losing weight, and now I look at walking as a mode of transportation instead of getting in a car, and I want to encourage others to do so.

NPH: What community partners have you worked with to help implement the National Prevention Strategy?

Erwin Tan: The Corporation for National and Community Service provides funding and grants to state agencies, local governments, tribal agencies and community non-profits to help solve some of the pressing problems in the U.S. For example, we partner with many local area agencies on aging, and they know that that Senior Corps volunteer will be there to help with the home delivered meals. When that volunteer member shows up at someone’s door, they’re not an employee of the federal government, they’re actually a community member, a neighbor, and sometimes that makes it easier for people to accept their assistance and for their programs to be more impactful.

We have an example from West Virginia where we had a program on homelessness for veterans with the 10 AmeriCorps members who worked on the project were all veterans, and the majority of them had been formerly homeless. That’s an example of the way we’re engaging the community in solving its own problems.

NPH: What examples do you have of volunteers making a difference in prevention issues through implementation of the strategy?

Erwin Tan: The primary mission is capacity building where we invest in the capacity of non-profits to then make lasting permanent changes to address many health-related issues such as, combating poverty and increasing economic opportunities for Americans and their communities. We are able to help by creating increased management capacity in local agencies, in developing the capacity to manage volunteers and recruit additional community volunteers. I visited a Senior Corps program in Colorado, a handyman program, and some of the things that they do is as simply changing the light bulbs for older people not able to do it. For want of a light bulb, someone could be trapped in one room to sleep, toilet and eat when the sun is down simply because they don’t have someone who can make a difference and change that light bulb.

If we invest in this human capacity of Senior Corps volunteers and AmeriCorps members, they will be there when an emergency happens because that often happens right in people’s back yards. And that helps us during normal operations, but also in emergency operations as well. So the impact is beyond what the immediate assignment is.

NPH: What benefits are there for the many volunteers?

Erwin Tan: We believe that it increases physical activity; it increases your mental activity and creates social activity as well. When that child asks you, ‘will you be there next week?’ and you promise the child that you’ll be there, when Monday rolls around that promise is what gets you out of your bed, out of your house, off your couch. And we know that sitting is the worst thing you can do and walking is better. Think about walking into a kindergarten. There are these rapidly moving objects that cross your path, and so you’ve got to stay nimble, you have to get out of chairs—that’s all exercise. .

NPH: What stories do you have of communities adopting sustainable prevention efforts because of CNCS involvement?

Asim Mishra: A great example is Food Corps, a yearlong program, which has reached nearly 15,000 students and started more than 100 community garden projects, resulted in the harvest of more than 11,000 pounds of fresh produce for kids. We have literally planted the seed for the community to build on to help improve both the health and economic environment.

Wendy Spencer: I think it’s about teaching people to fish instead of just feeding them, in everything we do. Teaching them these practices and so that they can be self-sufficient and learn for themselves is pivotal. People want a hand up, not a hand out. By giving citizens just a little bit of a hand, education and some support, they can live happier, more independent and healthier lives.

>>Bonus Link: Read a NewPublicHealth post on volunteers, including young AmeriCorps participants, just after Hurricane Sandy hit, helping residents of a New York City community severely impacted by the storm.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.