By KARA THOMPSON
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — While details of Maryland Gov. Wes Moore’s service year option for high school graduates are still being worked out, there are many other existing service year programs in the state, nationally, and worldwide that allow people to gain the experience and give back to the community in the way Moore wants.
The governor has made service one of his top priorities this term, signing an executive order creating the Maryland Department of Civic and Service Innovation on his first full day in office. Moore’s proposed plan for Maryland so far is a unique combination of the service year programs that have come before it.
One such program is Service Year Alliance, whose board chair, retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, joined Moore for his testimony in front of the Senate’s Education, Energy, and the Environment Committee on Feb. 22.
“I’m excited to be here because Maryland is on the verge of doing something really special that I’ve been involved with for more than a decade,” McChrystal said. “To me, service is not just an opportunity to get certain tasks done in the state or in the nation—we can hire people for that. We cannot hire people to be good citizens, we have to make them, we have to mold them, we’ve got to give every young American that opportunity.”
That molding of young citizens is the idea behind both Moore’s Service Year and the Service Year Alliance program. The Alliance runs an online website that connects young people looking to serve their communities with paid opportunities to do so, according to Kristen Bennett, Alliance CEO. It serves a range of people, from high school graduates to GED recipients to college grads to those who are mid-career looking to gain experience. Participants can end up helping clean up from natural disasters, tutoring, rebuilding homes, helping with conservation projects, and many other opportunities.
On serviceyear.com, interested participants fill out a profile about themselves and their interests, as well as time periods and locations where they are available. Based on this information, the platform suggests matches for organizations and opportunities, and participants can then apply to what interests them.
“One of the things that we are always trying to put front and center is that there’s not one way to do a service year, there really are a lot of different opportunities,” Bennett said..
While Service Year Alliance does not directly host service participants, it partners with other groups like AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps to link interested individuals with service opportunities. It was formed in 2016 and has over 225,000 users on the platform.
“In a lot of ways, it’s like applying for any other job; one of the reasons we created serviceyear.org is because the opportunities to serve are with thousands of organizations across the country, and there wasn’t really one place to find all of them,” she said. “What we wanted to do was make it approachable.”
Participating in a service year program also increases the likelihood of someone returning to school and earning a degree, the Alliance has found.
“We have seen that those who participate in service year programs without a bachelor’s degree are over twice as likely than their peers to go and earn a bachelor’s degree (after their service year),” said Bennett. An Alliance report from 2018 showed that 24% of service year alum who served without a bachelor’s degree went on to earn one, as compared to just 11% of their peers who went on to achieve a bachelor’s after two years of full-time work.
Another youth service organization is Youth Service America, a group that helps kids and young people ages 5-25 get involved in giving back to their communities. It was founded in 1986 and has engaged over 3.2 million young people in service in the last decade.
“Our biggest strategy is what we call the ask. We know that most young people volunteer for the first time because someone that they know asked them to,” said Karen Daniel, vice president of programs at YSA. “We really work hard to make sure that all young people are invited to serve and we know that not all young people are asked to serve at the same rates.”
Similar is the National Youth Leadership Council, whose goal since its founding in 1983, is to help young people become civically engaged and informed through serving learning, in the hopes of creating a more “just, sustainable and peaceful world.” The group strengthens the sustainability of service learning opportunities in organizations and schools, as well as increases the quality of the service opportunities.
“The benefit of quality service learning is that there are actual outcomes for the students as well as the community,” said Amy Meuers, chief executive officer of NYLC. “We see increases in engagement, we see the development of academic skills and investment in student success through service learning.”
Other national organizations dedicated to offering service opportunities are AmeriCorps, which has been around since 1993, the Peace Corps, founded in 1961, Teach for America, established in 1990, and the more recent Report for America, started in 2017, among others.
Worldwide, there are organizations such as the Republic of the Philippines’ National Youth Commission and South Africa’s National Youth Service Programme. Both aim to help combat issues affecting youth in their respective countries.
NYC was created in 1995 with the mission of promoting sustainable programs and policies that benefit Filipino youth. One of the things it offers is a Government Internship Program, which started out as a summer work program for students, where unemployed and out-of-school youth are hired as interns and are paid a monthly stipend.
NYDA, the parent of the National Youth Service Programme, was created by an act of South Africa’s Parliament in 2008 for the purpose of addressing issues faced by the youth in the nation. It offers a variety of programs, such as entrepreneurship grants, business management training and a jobs program, which helps young people get connected with opportunities they have skills for.
Elements of all of these programs can be seen in Maryland’s Serving Every Region Through Vocational Exploration Act of 2023, or HB546, which was introduced Feb. 2, on behalf of the Moore administration. The bill establishes and funds the Service Year Option, and has bipartisan support. Its Senate counterpart is SB551.
Under the act, participants would be placed in a service job for a minimum of 30 hours a week, paid $15 an hour by their employer, and receive mentorship and job training. According to the bill, the service job may be in the public or private sector, but no other specifics have been outlined.
Other things that have yet to be established are what year the program would be available to potential participants, who will be leading the new department or what other positions need to be filled in the department.
Moore testified at both the House hearing in the Appropriations Committee on Feb. 21, and the Senate Education, Energy and the Environment Committee on Feb. 22.
“I believe deeply that all the challenges that our state and all the challenges that our nation are facing, that it is going to be service that is going to help to save us,” Moore told the House committee in his testimony. “From the first day of my administration, I have worked to make Maryland a state of service, and it is a mission that all of us collectively are on.”
The program would be open to high school graduates and those who have an equivalent degree. The new department is in charge of the design and administration of the program, as well as creating a statewide network of participants and promoting the program to potential participants and employers.
“The Service Year Option established by this bill will provide young people of every background and of every jurisdiction all throughout the state the opportunity to serve our state while also gaining real-world perspectives, skills, and experience,” Moore said.
This is not the first time the state of Maryland has expanded access to service. In 2016, HB1488 established the Maryland Corps, and was signed by former Gov. Larry Hogan in May of that year. The program aimed to provide service opportunities that addressed community needs across the state for at least 100 participants. Though a bill that expanded and revised the program passed the General Assembly last year, both the chair and executive director positions remain vacant.
Moore’s executive order establishing a state department to oversee service and civic engagement makes Maryland one of just a few other states to have these cabinet-level agencies. For example, in California, the state office California Volunteers, led by the state’s Chief Service Officer Josh Fryday, helps to oversee Californians’ civic engagement, service, and volunteering.
“Having a dedicated state agency is a powerful way to value the importance of service in our democratic society,” said Fryday. “Governor Gavin Newsom is a strong proponent of service, elevating the position of California Chief Service Officer to Cabinet-level and investing millions into creating more opportunities. Under Governor Newsom’s leadership, California Volunteers has been focused on creating more paid-service opportunities to tackle California’s biggest challenges, such as pandemic-related education loss, food insecurity, and the climate crisis. We are thrilled by Governor Moore’s leadership to double down on the power of service, and know Maryland will benefit greatly as a result.”
Some of California Volunteers’ programs include College Corps, which partners with campuses across the state to allow students to earn money to help pay for their education by placing them in community-based organizations to do service, Youth Jobs Corps, which partners with local governments and community organizations to provide jobs and job training to underserved youth and AmeriCorps.
“We often describe service as a win-win-win. For individuals, they build connections, develop leadership skills, and gain valuable work experience. For the community, service builds connections between individuals of different beliefs, backgrounds and life experiences – helping to bridge divides in our too often polarized society. And for the whole state, we are investing in the next generation of leaders to address our greatest challenges,” Fryday said. “We know service shapes lives and changes communities.”
However, some Republicans are unhappy with the way the Department of Civic and Service Innovation is being established so far in Maryland. According to a Feb. 22 press release from the Maryland Senate Republican Caucus, Republicans want more transparency on the department, and the ability to work with the governor on its creation.
A secretary for this department has yet to be named by the Moore administration, something Senate President Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore City, indicated in a news conference on Friday that the legislature was anxiously awaiting in order to move forward with the service year priority.
“From my perspective as the president of the Senate it is essential that all of the secretaries be named and up for consideration for the Senate by the time we leave session,” Ferguson said.
Despite these concerns, Moore is dedicated to making Maryland a state of service.
“Service will help to save us, because it will help us get to know each other better,” Moore said. “Service will give each person an opportunity to actually spend time with others who have a shared and a common understanding and who make sure that their fingerprints are on the future of this state.”