April 22, 2009

Now Our Bill Becomes Law: The Signing of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act

April 21, 2009 - This blog post has literally been 10 years in the making. Since the House approved the bill on March 31, we knew this day was coming and yet I am still at a loss for words.

The National Service-Learning Partnership was among the small crowd of supporters invited to witness President Obama sign The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. Also represented in the audience was Service-Learning United, the broad-based advocacy coalition of more than 100 local, state, and national organizations committed to advancing public policy for service-learning. The National Service-Learning Partnership convenes and administers Service-Learning United with generous support from the State Farm Insurance Companies Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

As we've mentioned in earlier posts, the Kennedy Serve America Act will dramatically expand opportunities for all Americans to serve, and includes bold, new opportunities for young people to use their educations to make a difference in the world around them. It increases authorized federal funding for service-learning from $43 million to $97 million.
  • Watch President Obama make service-learning history.
  • Read the White House Blog for the Administration's report on the signing event.
  • Check out a summary of the service-learning highlights from the bill--I mean law (smile).
Several people have asked me what was my favorite part of the day. It's hard to name just one, but I've narrowed it down to three things:

#1. First on my list is interacting with and watching a high school student whom I met outside while waiting to enter the building. She was a student at the SEED School, a Learn and Serve America grantee and a school where service is embedded into the curriculum. "Service" was clearly her thing. In fact, she was selected to attend the event because of the contributions she made to her school and community through several service and leadership opportunities. I sat across from her during the event and watched her burst into tears when she saw Mrs. Obama step onto the stage. I don't remember her name, but I'll never forget her face in that moment.

#2. Second on the list is my favorite quote from President Obama's speech: "You don’t need to be a community organizer, or a Senator – or a Kennedy – or even a President to bring change to people’s lives." That's when I thought of all of the young people, educators, and community partners who engage in service-learning in schools and communities across the country. At the Partnership, we often talk about youth, educators, and community partners who dare to make a difference through service-learning. They challenge young people to make their own education even more relevant by using the content knowledge and skills they learn in school and community-based programs to find solutions to important community problems.

The work we service-learning practitioners do is not always in the spotlight, but the difference and the positive change we make in the lives of students and the collective health and vitality of the schools and communities we serve is undeniable. The Kennedy Serve America Act gives us a bold platform from which to spread that message and challenges us to engage even more young people in opportunities to learn and serve.

#3. My final favorite moment of the day is the picture that appears above. I struggled to snap this picture, trying to hold my camera high above the head of a much taller colleague seated in front of me. It's a nice shot of the Members of Congress who stood on one side of President Obama as he signed the bill into law. But notice who is standing on the other side: a group of eager and engaged students ready to be a part of the solutions we so desperately need. How symbolic.

It's time to roll up our sleeves. As the Corporation for National and Community Service prepares to implement the programs outlined in the Kennedy Serve America Act, we must continue to challenge government officials and ourselves to live up to the aspirations this law puts forward for service-learning. Now, our real work begins and I, for one, can't wait!

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