Heard on the Hill

Staffers Find Community Service Sees No Party Lines

‘We come from all different parts of the country but we call this place home’

The Capitol Hill Community Service Association did a cleanup at the John Taylor Elementary School in August 2017. School business manager Joe Brown, center, is flanked by, from left, Ron Hammond, Imani Augustus, Brad Korten, Kristen Siegele, Alex Erwin and Maureen Acero. (Courtesy CHCSA)

Congressional staffers who may not agree ideologically are finding ways to come together in service. The bipartisan Capitol Hill Community Service Association gives them a chance to volunteer in D.C.

“I was trying to find a way to help bridge the divide. We all know it can be very toxic here sometimes, not to the fault of staffers, obviously. We’re all here because we want to serve and I think community service is one of those places where we can find that common ground,” said the association’s co-leader Brad Korten, a legislative aide to New Jersey Democratic Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman.

“It’s nice to take away politics for a little while and just help out,” he said.

Kristen Siegele, a legislative correspondent to Missouri Republican Rep. Sam Graves, is the group’s co-leader.

“It’s kind of easy to get lost in the mix as a junior staffer and feel like you’re not really impacting people as much as you would like,” said Siegele, 24. “I feel like at the root of community service and public service in general, it’s just having the time and ability to give back. And it doesn’t have to be necessarily through what you do on the Hill but also making the time to invest in your own community.”

Saturday is a day off from Hill work but association members will be working with City Blossoms, a community garden organization.

“We come from all different parts of the country, but we call this place home so we should also help our home,” said Korten, 27. “We all are public servants and we all came to D.C. to serve. We all want that feeling of giving back.”

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The association has on its email list roughly 150 staffers whom it mobilizes to volunteer at various D.C. groups, from homeless shelters and food banks to elementary schools and public parks. The group’s board is made up of Korten, Siegele, two other Democrats and two other Republicans. It is sponsored by Reps. Garret Graves, a Louisiana Republican, and Alan Lowenthal, a California Democrat.

The group aims to “cut down the red tape,” as Siegele put it. It takes care of the wait lists, waivers and vetting processes that different organizations require of volunteers, allowing staffers to get straight to work.

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So far, they’ve volunteered at the Capital Area Food Bank, Bread for the City and John Taylor Elementary School, among other places.

Korten came up with the idea of forming the group when he first came to Capitol Hill in 2015. He talked to some fellow staffers interested in community service opportunities and he organized trips.

“I realized this can be a little bit bigger, where we can actually organize it to include other staffers and make it something bigger than what it was. Originally, it was going to be nothing official, just us connecting people,” he said.

Korten then brought in Siegele, who also discovered when she first came to the Hill in 2016 that it was hard for staffers to find volunteer opportunities.

The association also has events on the Hill to teach staffers about service through panels that have included Peace Corps volunteers and U.S. Agency for International Development representatives. It hopes to expand to teaching civics to underserved parts of D.C. and mentoring young people who want to work in government.

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