By Deborah Goodall

In his compelling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance attributes his unlikely escape from generational poverty in Kentucky’s Appalachia and Ohio’s Rust Belt to a few mentors who gave him a fighting chance during his high school years. While Central Oregon is miles away from Appalachia and the Rust Belt, we too have thousands of youth in the same dire straits Vance faced and similarly in need of consistent role modeling and tough-love mentorship.

Each year, hundreds of Central Oregon youth find a helping hand — that elusive fighting chance — through Heart of Oregon Corps and Northwest Youth Corps. Based on a “work-earn-learn” model, both organizations give youth ages 16-24 a chance to serve their communities through public lands conservation and fire fuels reduction efforts.

They earn wages, stipends and scholarships, funds that enable them to learn to manage money, pay their taxes and build their independence. While learning how to work, they also earn high school credits, prepare for the GED and/or enroll in their first college course.

Unfortunately, a significant source of the federal funding that helps support these two programs is threatened by the White House’s budget that eliminates the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the agency which administers AmeriCorps and Senior Corps programs.

Heart of Oregon Corps and Northwest Youth Corps are not the only entities threatened. Dozens of critical Central Oregon nonprofit organizations rely on CNCS funding. Numerous public and private elementary schools participate in the Grandparent Foster program, and organizations such as High Desert Museum, Bethlehem Inn, Boys and Girls Clubs, Children’s Forest, Big Brothers Big Sisters and Saving Grace are among those which rely on AmeriCorps to fill indispensable staff slots that enable them to expand or enhance their respective local or regional services.

According to Janet Huerta, executive director of Saving Grace, AmeriCorps volunteers not only enable her organization to serve more Central Oregon residents, they also bring fresh energy and perspective to its critical mission.

As a nation we are in the throes of a changing workforce and its ramifications on the individuals and families left behind. Heart of Oregon Corps and Northwest Youth Corps strive to address a fragile but critical link in the workforce preparation chain: disenfranchised youth — particularly those in our rural communities — who have limited pathways out of poverty. Other beneficiaries of AmeriCorps funding put their respective shoulders to the consequences people and families face when they lose a living wage and the dignity of work.

In the next several months our national leaders will wrangle with federal budget decisions — what to leave in, what to leave out. Oregon’s leaders must respect the role CNCS programs and funding play in our state. Their direct and indirect return on investment is immense. Under the George W. Bush administration, CNCS was restructured to give states more say in how to use the funds for human infrastructure to support and manage local volunteers. As for dollars spent, Columbia University researchers estimate that every dollar invested in national service programs results in a $3.95 return in higher earnings and increased output. According to Stephen Goldsmith, who managed CNCS during the Bush administration, “participation in community service by those who are unemployed increases by 26 percent the likelihood that they will obtain employment.” Further, for every $10 in federal expenditures, AmeriCorps raises $15 from private grants.

AmeriCorps and Senior Corps are the lifeblood for hundreds of nonprofit organizations throughout the country. As we look to create new jobs and retain existing ones, we cannot overlook the vast population of American youth who need a different set of keys to access workplace success. And we cannot overlook the services provided by those who support our most vulnerable families as they strive to gain a footing in our information economy.

— Deborah Goodall, president of the Heart of Oregon Corps board of directors, lives in Bend.