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Public Statements

National Service Reauthorization Act

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Ms. MURKOWSKI. Mr. President, before I speak to the amendment I have sent to the desk on behalf of my colleague, Senator Dorgan, and others, I would like to speak generally to the measure before us, the Serve America Act. I am a strong supporter of volunteer service, including Global Youth Service Day. I am proud and pleased that this reauthorization has been developed and brought to the floor in a bipartisan manner. The work done on this legislation is the product of the best tradition of the Senate HELP Committee and of the Senate itself. I offer my congratulations to those who have worked very hard on this--Senators KENNEDY, MIKULSKI, HATCH, ENZI--and all their very hard-working staff who do a good job.

I also thank some very professional and dedicated people in the State of Alaska for their thorough review of and comments on the various drafts of the legislation. We would send it off to them and get good response back, good feedback. I appreciate that.

They include: Nita Madsen, executive director of Serve Alaska, and her staff; Rachel Morse and all the great people at RurAL CAP who implement AmeriCorps and VISTA programs; Denise Daniello at the Alaska Commission on Aging; Angela Salerno at the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services; and many others who were helpful in providing insights from the providers' perspective.

AmeriCorps and the VISTA programs are a vital part of Alaska's communities. I would like to take a few minutes this morning to give some of the examples of their valuable work in the State and to congratulate the volunteers for their service.

For more than 10 years, AmeriCorps volunteers with the Student Conservation Association have served Alaska and the Nation on our public lands in Denali National Park and Preserve, the Kenai Fjords, and Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. Every year over 1 million people visit Alaska to see these natural resources, to hike and camp and fish and explore. The conservation service provided by these students helps protect scenic beauty of our State, including the volcanoes, glaciers, wild rivers, and waterfalls.

My family and I hiked the Chilkoot Trail a couple years ago and ran into a group of AmeriCorps volunteers who were out on the trail building and refurbishing some of the old historic cabins along the way and making the trail safe for its many visitors.

The students also research and monitor fish and wildlife populations as well as watersheds that are essential for the red salmon. This year 80 of SCA's AmeriCorps volunteers will work in Cook Inlet in the watershed there to monitor and support active fish management. In addition to providing natural resource stewardship, visitor services, and environmental education, their work supports Alaska's key economic engines which are our fisheries and tourism.

In 2008, SCA placed over 236 high school students and college interns in Alaska who provided over 76,000 service hours, valued at over $1.5 million. In Alaska last year, there were also 64 VISTA volunteers who served with 18 project sponsors. I will give a little snapshot of one of those projects. It was at Juneau-Douglas High School, the CHOICE project. The CHOICE Program, which is Choosing Healthy Options in Cooperative Education, focuses on improving the academic achievement of 100 at-risk students at Juneau-Douglas High School. The VISTA volunteers help the students develop a sense of belonging and ownership within CHOICE, the high school, and the community at large. So VISTA not only involves the CHOICE students in the community; they also involve the community in the education and learning of the students. Our VISTA coordinator, Jennifer Knaggs, recruited 42 community members to provide internships in State and local offices in the agencies and in the local businesses. In conjunction with the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependency, she helped facilitate three Alaska teen institute retreats. She also organized and coordinated the Beyond School Program, in which six community volunteers teach small groups of high school freshmen a hands-on, real life skill, such as Tlingit carving, writing and producing radio public service announcements about healthy choices, creating short video biographies of tribal elders, and visual promotions of healthy choices within the school.

In a small community such as Juneau, retention of internships is no small feat. Students have reported very positive experiences with their internships and their hosts, and the performance we are seeing coming out of these kids is great. They are proud of their accomplishments. The students have become involved in the community, and it is a real win.

The great public servants who run Alaska's national service programs have noted the many positive aspects of this reauthorization for increasing the recruitment and retention of volunteers, focusing on directions Alaska has already begun to move toward, and increasing the accountability for positive outcomes. In their view, there are a few items they look to in the Serve America Act that are especially helpful. The first is the increase in the living allowance and education awards. It has the potential to increase the recruitment and the retention of AmeriCorps members, especially from rural Alaskan communities. Also, it allows senior volunteers to transfer the education award to a child or a grandchildren. Again, this will help with recruitment efforts. It increases focus on individuals with a disability, paralleling one of the focus areas of our Alaska State Commission. Increasing the connection with the Commission on Aging and Intergenerational Programs also meets another one of Alaska's performance measures. So having this provision in the act will assist with moving this partnership forward.

The accountability provisions will strengthen the State service plan. Having a minimum amount for the formula grants for both AmeriCorps and Learn and Serve is very good for the State of Alaska and other States that have equally small populations. The increase for the operation of the State Commission is a positive; even if obtaining the required 1-to-1 match will be challenging for a State such as ours, we believe it is a positive step.

From the perspective of one of Alaska's largest service grantees, they noted the following: The effort to expand and improve opportunities for national and community service should positively benefit Alaska's engagement in the service; the grouping of ``corps'' for the service programs into Education Corps, Healthy Future Corps, Clean Energy Service Corps, Opportunity Corps or Veterans Corps, coupled with defined performance indicators, will add value to the existing Corporation for Community and National Service framework; linking the value of the education award to the maximum value of the Pell grant will improve the strength and success of AmeriCorps programs in Alaska; increasing the AmeriCorps living allowance from $16,000 to $18,000 will especially benefit the programs serving rural Alaskan communities.

Let me speak to the amendment I have called up. This is amendment No. 691, offered on behalf of my colleague, Senator Dorgan. This amendment to the Serve America Act designates a tribal liaison for the Corporation for National and Community Service and keeps Indian tribes as eligible under existing law for nationally competitive grants. The corporation has recognized the need for a tribal liaison position and has designated an individual to reach out to Native American communities. This amendment will make that position permanent. The tribal liaison will work across all programs and support units to increase Native participation in national service and help to develop and enhance programming to address the unique needs of Native American communities.

In addition, we propose to keep Indian tribes as eligible under existing law for nationally competitive grants. Current law allows tribes to compete for funds with States and national nonprofit organizations. This amendment would maintain the eligibility of tribes to compete with States and national nonprofit organizations for national competitive grants. Many of these activities and indicators under the proposed corps in this act are directly applicable to Indian Country, and access to these grants with the assistance of a tribal liaison is important. We recognize that the education of American Indians and Alaska Natives lags far behind that of the rest of the country, and the provisions of the Education Corps will help address these needs by providing mentors and tutors to Native students. Likewise, the Healthy Futures Corps would help address the lack of access to health care on many of our reservations.

Likewise, the Healthy Futures Corps will help address the lack of access to health care on many of our reservations. American Indians have higher disease rates and lower life expectancy than the general population. Volunteers serving in the Healthy Futures Corps could assist those who live on reservations or in Alaskan communities in obtaining health services.

I encourage my colleagues to look at the amendment and provide support for this important tribal liaison and in retaining tribal eligibility for competitive grants within the Corporation for National and Community Service.

I thank Senators KENNEDY, MIKULSKI, HATCH, and ENZI for their dedication to public service and congratulate them on what I believe is good legislation.

I yield the floor.


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