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Profile: Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA)
Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) was a participant or observer in the following events:
Americorps/VISTA logo. [Source: Americorps]Congress sends the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act to President Obama, who will sign the act into law sometime in April. The bill passed both houses of Congress with large majorities. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who co-sponsored the Senate legislation, says the bill is “probably the most bipartisan bill we will see on the Senate floor this year.” House Republicans wrote in the House committee report: “[W]e applaud the inclusion of reforms that Committee Republicans have long championed to ensure that recipients of taxpayer funds are held accountable for results. We are pleased to join with the Majority in supporting bipartisan efforts to strengthen the national service laws and improve service delivery throughout the country.” The bill provides for the expansion of the AmeriCorps program from 75,000 to 250,000, creating new groups of volunteers focusing on health care, education, renewable energy, and veterans, and reauthorizing such AmeriCorps organizations as VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) and the National Civilian Community Corps. The Kennedy Act also calls for awarding college students who complete a full-time national service job an “educational award having a value equal to the maximum amount of a Federal Pell Grant.” AmeriCorps says this would increase the amount its members receive upon completion of service from $4,725 to $5,350, which they can use to pay for school or pay back student loans. First Lady Michelle Obama says the bill is of particular concern to her, as volunteerism is one of her priorities. The legislation was originally known as the “Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education (GIVE) Act,” but senators renamed it in honor of ailing Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), who helped craft the bill. Kennedy says of its final passage in the House of Representatives: “Today’s House vote again demonstrates the high priority Congress gives to encouraging citizens of all ages in all communities across America to participate in public service. This legislation will enable many more Americans to do something for their country to meet the many challenges facing us. I look forward to the president signing this bill into law so that a welcome new era of national and community service can begin.” The bill also establishes September 11 as a national day of service. [New York Times, 3/31/2009; Annenberg Political Fact Check, 3/31/2009]
'Re-Education Camps' - Some Republican lawmakers, along with a variety of conservative pundits and radio show hosts, have claimed that the bill is far more sinister than it seems. House Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) says the bill will allow the Obama administration to create what she calls “re-education camps for young people…” Bachmann tells a Minnesota radio audience: “It’s under the guise of—quote—volunteerism. But it’s not volunteers at all. It’s paying people to do work on behalf of government.… I believe that there is a very strong chance that we will see that young people will be put into mandatory service. And the real concerns is that there are provisions for what I would call re-education camps for young people, where young people have to go and get trained in a philosophy that the government puts forward and then they have to go to work in some of these politically correct forums. [Minnesota Independent, 4/6/2009] The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s FactCheck.org receives numerous letters asking questions such as: “Is Congress creating a mandatory public service system? Are participants not allowed to go to church?” One writer tells FactCheck: “I have been getting all kinds of e-mails from people claiming that bill calls for mandatory service and in violation of our 13th amendment, and that I should call my congressman and tell them that this bill is modern day slavery. I have also received e-mails saying that service would still be voluntary and that the bill is just expanding current volunteer opportunities.… There is a lot of confusion out there right now regarding this very important legislation and was hoping you guys could shed some light.”
Debunking Claims - FactCheck reports, “The national service bill does not mandate that youth must participate nor does it forbid anyone who does participate from going to church.” It notes that many conservative pundits and bloggers have claimed that the bill “requires the government to draw up plans for a ‘mandatory service requirement for all able young people.’ Others say the bill forbids participants from attending church. These claims are false. Neither the House-passed bill nor the Senate-passed version says these things.”
'Mandatory Service Requirement?' - Bachmann and others have also claimed that the bill provides for a “mandatory service requirement for all able young people,” but that provision is not in any version of the bill. The original House bill did advance that as an idea worthy of study, and called for a “Congressional Commission on Civil Service” to “address and analyze” several topics, including “issues that deter volunteerism” and how they can be overcome, how expanding international public service might affect diplomacy and foreign relations, and “[w]hether a workable, fair, and reasonable mandatory service requirement for all able young people could be developed, and how such a requirement could be implemented in a manner that would strengthen the social fabric of the Nation.” The proposed commission would also investigate “[t]he need for a public service academy, a 4-year institution that offers a federally funded undergraduate education with a focus on training future public sector leaders.” However, that entire section was removed from the final bill. Hatch has confirmed that the bill contains no such provisions, saying on the floor of the Senate: “Consistent with our All-Volunteer Army and volunteer opportunities and individuals’ choice in communities, nothing in this legislation is mandatory. This bill simply provides more Americans more choices and opportunities to give back to their neighborhoods and their country all through the means which they freely choose.” The bill does provide for the inclusion of service-learning programs in public schools.
Church Attendance Prohibited? - Perhaps the most inflammatory claim is the one promulgated on conservative blogs and talk radio shows claiming that the bill would prohibit volunteers from attending church. FactCheck notes that such a provision “would be an incredibly draconian law—and a clear violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of religion, upon which this country was founded…” The claim seems to originate from the Jonas Clark Ministries, which has made Web postings and sent out mass e-mails claiming that the language of section 125 of the bill “prohibited activities and ineligible organizations,” and as such volunteers would be prohibited from attending church. The bill makes no such prohibition. It does, however, says that national service volunteers cannot attempt to “influence legislation,” organize “protests, petitions, boycotts or strikes,” promote “union organizing,” engage in “partisan political activities, or other activities designed to influence the outcome of an election to any public office,” and engage in “religious instruction, conducting worship services, providing instruction as part of a program that includes mandatory religious instruction or worship, constructing or operating facilities devoted to religious instruction or worship, maintaining facilities primarily or inherently devoted to religious instruction or worship, or engaging in any form of religious proselytization.” The language is virtually identical to what AmeriCorps and Senior Corps has told their volunteers for years. FactCheck writes: “In other words, public service activities can’t include anything overtly religious or political. And this is nothing new.” AmeriCorps spokesman Sandy Scott later tells FactCheck: “Both House- and Senate-passed bills codify long-standing regulatory restrictions on engaging in certain activities while ‘on-duty’ as an AmeriCorps member. They do not cover what individuals do on their own time at their own initiative.” [Annenberg Political Fact Check, 3/31/2009]
Entity Tags: Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy, Annenberg Public Policy Center, AmeriCorps, Volunteers in Service to America, Barack Obama, Senior Corps, Orrin Hatch, Michelle Obama, Michele Bachmann, National Civilian Community Corps, Sandy Scott, Obama administration, Jonas Clark Ministries
Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, 2010 Elections
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