On November 28, 2023 Sonali Nijhawan, Director of AmeriCorps State and National, spoke to hundreds of AmeriCorps grantees at the 2023 AmeriCorps State and National Symposium in Washington, DC.

By now, I think all of you know that I am an AmeriCorps alum myself. I served with City Year, right out of college, in my hometown of Chicago.

My journey into public service began in that moment and has continued on through today, where I now hold a position in the Biden-Harris Administration, serving as your Director of AmeriCorps State and National.

Serving with AmeriCorps changed my life. It gave me purpose, community, perspective and so much more. It was a year when I felt poured into and invested in—and it continues to serve as a source of inspiration.

My service year is my own personal reminder of how AmeriCorps programs can change lives—because it changed mine.

My service site was a school in the Southside of Chicago, a neighborhood I hadn’t spent much time in growing up. Before starting my service year, I already had a picture of what schools and neighborhoods on Southside looked like. Most of it was informed by news coverage. Some of it was informed by my peers who parroted the same headlines. Very little was positive. And none of it reflected the lived experiences of the people who made up the community.  

When I began working in the school and alongside educators and other community members, I began to see assets where talking heads shared deficits and scarcity.

I was reminded by community leaders, including my fellow AmeriCorps members who had attended the same schools where we served—that we were not there to “save” anyone. That love, culture, creativity, and care were already present in abundance. That these assets persisted in the face of shrinking budgets, challenging policies, and a narrative that dismissed their contributions.

My service experience showed me that we all have biases. And that it’s easy to let our narratives be claimed by the loudest voices in the room.

But service…cuts through the noise. Through service, we recognize our common humanity. At a time of intense and increased polarization, service continues to bring us together.

The programs that you build, implement, and oversee foster a sense of belonging and builds leaders who recognize that what we have in common…is stronger than the forces which try to divide us.

Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to a number of site visits, and I’d like to share with you a story from a recent trip to eastern Kentucky. Three weeks ago, I visited rural Appalachia for the very first time. I joined Partners for Rural Impact and their Partner Corps team to learn about the service and impact of their program. I met with current members, AmeriCorps alumni and various staff from the program, school district, and county.

I learned how alumni from Leslie County High School came back to serve as AmeriCorps members with the Partner Corps program—transforming one of the lowest-performing schools in the state to one of the rising stars.

I met with “retired” school principals, teachers, superintendents who came back to lead Partner Corps and develop talent pipelines to build the next generation of leaders, including individuals who had navigated difficult life experiences with substance use and recovery.

And I heard one of the most powerful stories of what a group of AmeriCorps members meant for more than 500 students at Leslie County High School.

Nearly 10 years ago, Partner Corps began with a group of AmeriCorps members serving in Leslie County High School. They were easy to spot because they all wore green fuzzy vests. They provided mentoring and tutoring services for students, but their impact extended far beyond the classroom.

During my visit I met with Kendra, who now serves as a Social Worker and Guidance Counselor at the high school, and who was part of that initial cohort who were endearingly called “green fuzzies” by parents, staff, and students.  

Teachers would connect students to their “green fuzzy” for support; parents would come to the school to meet their child’s “fuzzy” to express their gratitude for the support; principals would consult “green fuzzies” to improve student outcomes.

Over the years, the uniform changed, but the name has stuck. And AmeriCorps has continued to bring hope and support to their student body. I think that’s a story that we can all relate to, but here’s the part that really got me:

For the last few years, Kendra has administered a survey of students which asks them to identify a trusted adult in their life. This last summer, every student was able to identify a safe and trusted adult—and most of them chose their “green fuzzy.

I don’t need to tell you how impactful that is, especially at a time when suicide risk and mental health issues are at an all-time high for our young people.

Kendra’s story and Partner Corps’ story of success is echoed by thousands like it: your members, your communities, your impact.

I’ve heard your stories. I’ve seen your work and impact. I’ve connected with your members. And I know that you didn’t get into this work for the glory, the headlines or the attention. You’re here because you want to make a difference.

And today I do want to call on you—to encourage you—to tell more of your stories! Work with local newspapers and stations. Share your AmeriCorps stories on social media. And let us know so we can lift them up and make sure everyone, including our colleagues in Congress, understand the impact of AmeriCorps. Understand the impact of those green fuzzies. 

Thank you.