Our country is waiting for action
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A couple of weeks ago, David Ignatius, wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post entitled “Congress’s bipartisan national-service bill would be a powerful tonic for what’s ailing America” in which he aptly states, “the House is waiting for Senate action.” For the past three years, since the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service was charged with considering methods to increase participation in military, national, and public service, the country has been waiting for action, too.

As pundits talked, nonprofit organizations like Operation Gratitude got to work. In the absence of a legislative solution, we partnered with the private sector to strengthen dozens of communities, creating opportunities for every American to serve in a meaningful way -- one that supports our military, first responders and frontline health care workers and ultimately bridges divides.

The recent pandemic and social unrest have heightened the importance of service and the need to unite our nation, find common ground, and build empathy for one another. With the help of tens of thousands of volunteers, our small nonprofit responded with one of the largest coordinated efforts in the country on a shoestring budget directly supporting more than 250,000 frontline responders in hundreds of hospitals, police and fire departments, and National Guard units across the country. To put it simply, we lifted their spirits during a challenging time so they could better serve our communities and our nation in unthinkable conditions.

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This is not new to nonprofits like ours. Since our inception in 2003, we have led a grassroots movement to make volunteerism and service a social norm and accessible to all Americans. The results - 2.8 million active duty service members, veterans and first responders supported -- speak volumes about the tangible impact volunteerism can make.

In 2019 alone, more than 1 million volunteers from all walks of life joined us in hands-on service projects and dozens of large scale community-building events across the nation. The call to expand national service programs to create jobs, help contain the coronavirus pandemic and begin to unify a divided country takes action not words. In the 16 months leading to the coronavirus pandemic, Operation Gratitude bridged divides and united communities, where neighborhood gatherings, churches, community centers or schools, service and meaningful interactions were part of the solution.

The herculean efforts of our team, coalition of corporate partners, and volunteers over the past 90 days have also helped contain the pandemic and save lives by bolstering the strength and resolve of our frontline responders. As the chief human resources officer for Temple University Health System, John Lasky, said “Our frontline healthcare workers truly appreciate a gesture like this. It boosts employee engagement which, in turn, is correlated with improved patient satisfaction and quality of care outcomes. Truly a win-win all around.”

Actions like these lend nonprofit leaders a unique perspective and expertise that will prove invaluable, as policymakers evaluate the elements of a successful national service model. While I agree that national service isn’t a cure-all, but a start that allows more Americans to work together for our country, I would go one step further and say that success of that model is only achievable with the inclusion of nonprofits that rely heavily on private sector funding and involvement.

This will ultimately result in millions more Americans getting involved in military, national, and public service without spending billions of taxpayer dollars. In addition to government programs and support, there must be encouragement for nonprofits and corporate partners to continue inspiring people from all walks of life to give back and strengthen communities and our nation through volunteerism. When we are not busy taking action, nonprofits with proven track records should be part of the discussion and have a seat at the table when considering methods to address the public service needs of the nation.

The tonic to what’s ailing America does indeed involve service, like the hands-on volunteerism Operation Gratitude and its millions of supporters have engaged in for the past 17 years.

Kevin M. Schmiegel is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who now serves as the chief executive officer of Operation Gratitude, a national 501c3 nonprofit.