Impact America Founder and President Stephen Black is proud of the work they are doing, but he wants the organization to go beyond addressing community needs. He also wants to empower college students with empathy for those most in need so that they can better understand the impact of their efforts.
“I don’t know a better way to change a person’s mind than allowing them to gain personal, intimate insight into the lives of those in need,” Black says. “It’s such a powerful experience.”
Black’s vision began in 2004, when he became director of the Center for Ethics & Social Responsibility at the University of Alabama, and created Impact Alabama, a student service initiative. In 2014, the program expanded to Tennessee, South Carolina, and Florida, and the organization officially changed its name to Impact America.
The nonprofit meets community needs through initiatives such as FocusFirst, SaveFirst, and SpeakFirst.
FocusFirst is a high-tech vision care initiative that screens and provides children in urban and rural communities throughout the Southeast with comprehensive vision care from six months to five years of age. Last year, more than 99,730 children in more than 2,600 centers in eight states were screened through FocusFirst.
SaveFirst is a tax preparation initiative that trains college, graduate and law school students to provide free tax preparation services to low-income, working families – especially targeting those eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit. During the 2018 tax season, SaveFirst prepared returns for 13,713 families at 36 tax sites in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and Tennessee. The effort helped these families claim $19 million in refunds, and saved $5.5 million in preparation fees.
SpeakFirst is an Alabama initiative in which forty-six SpeakFirst students in eleven graduating classes earned more than $5.5 million in college scholarships this year. The program uses academic debate as a platform to help talented students whose potential is limited by a lack of rigorous academic opportunities and get them on a path toward college.
What makes Impact America unique is that it uses college students and recent college graduates to carry out its mission of empowering a generation through collaborative efforts that promote change in the communities it serves. The nonprofit employs 79 AmeriCorps Members and 19 full-time staff members across four states, and engages 850 volunteers annually, most of whom are college, graduate or law students.
Impact America is an AmeriCorps National Direct Program and receives funding from the Corporation for National and Community Service in order to help pay its AmeriCorps Members. Funding to carry out the initiatives comes from corporations like Protective Life, and fundraisers such as Impact’s Brightest Company Charitable Trivia Competition, at which Protective Life employees recently captured first place.
Helping those in need is an important goal of Impact America, but Black says he hopes the program gives students and graduates a better understanding of those in need.
“The premise of all this is a growing concern of what happens to a country with 320 million people where every year for the last 50 years a greater and greater percentage of Americans have less interaction with people unlike themselves,” Black says. “It’s not about politics… It’s about empathy and civic obligation, about the ability to listen to the stories of others and understand their challenges. To care about citizens like we care about ourselves.”