TOPICS > Economy

Volunteer Funding Crisis

October 23, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: Joe al Maura spent the last two years as a member of Jump Start, a Boston-based non-profit organization that recruits college students to teach pre-school children. It’s one of 900 groups that make up AmeriCorps. That’s the national service program founded ten years ago by President Clinton. Since its creation, more than 250,000 young adults have served communities through AmeriCorps.

JOELLE MORA: It gave me the opportunity to learn the tricks and the trades of teaching, the trainings, the experience, the knowledge that I needed to bring it into the classroom. And it also helped me financially.

KWAME HOLMAN: The federal government pays AmeriCorps volunteers a small amount to help them cover living expenses during their year-long enrollment. Afterward, the volunteers are eligible for a nearly $5,000 grant to help pay for college. AmeriCorps’ supporters say that’s a small investment of federal money for a big return. But a funding crisis now is threatening the program, angering both its supporters and the Republican appropriators who governor AmeriCorps’ budget. New York Congressman Jim Walsh.

REP. JIM WALSH: What I have a problem is the way it’s been administered and the fact that they’re making promises to people that they can’t keep, they’re over hiring, they’re outrunning their budget every year, year in and year out.

KWAME HOLMAN: Walsh is referring to mismanagement at AmeriCorps’ parent agency, which was found to have awarded grants for 20,000 more volunteers than Congress had authorized. With those volunteers slated to begin work this fall, AmeriCorps needs additional money to pay them. Without it, Jumpstart director Rob Waldron says he will lose 80 percent of his volunteers. Waldron argues AmeriCorps’ management problems have been corrected.

ROB WALDRON, Jumpstart: The management has been changed, the technology has been improved. It’s time that these organizations get support and not cheap shots for things that we had nothing to do with that are also old news. They’ve been fixed.

KWAME HOLMAN: Waldron and other leaders of AmeriCorps programs had hundreds of volunteers ready to start ten months-month stints this fall. Michael brown runs one of the oldest and largest AmeriCorps-funded programs, city year in Boston.

MICHAEL BROWN: It was shocking. We were expecting maybe, you know, 10 percent , 15 percent , maybe 20 percent cut across the board in AmeriCorps. Instead, we’ve seen 100 percent cuts.

KWAME HOLMAN: City year volunteers are college-aged men and women who mentor children on skills such as preventing domestic violence and advancing diversity.

MICHAEL BROWN: Five of our programs were zeroed out entirely from the original programs we received from AmeriCorps. Moving forward from the people we had last year in city year, we’re going to have no more than 500.

KWAME HOLMAN: In July, Waldron and other leaders convinced Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, a longtime advocate of national service, to press her colleagues for $100 million in new funding, which they say is needed to save thousands of positions.

SEN. BARBARA MIKULSKI: This is an emergency today, and who are we going to punish if we don’t do the money? Not the bureaucracy, not the boon doing letters, but volunteers in our communities.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mikulski’s persuasion worked and the Senate approved $100 million for AmeriCorps. But leaders in the House of Representatives balked.

WALSH: This is not fixed, and putting more money in the hands of administrators who, by their own admission, provided bonuses in this shortfall year, they provided incentives and bonuses to managers who have mismanaged this program.

KWAME HOLMAN: Walsh was referring to published reports last august that showed AmeriCorps handed out more than $400,000 in bonuses to several of its officials, despite the documented mismanagement of the agency’s finances. City Year’s Michael Brown acknowledged giving the bonuses hurt AmeriCorps’ chances with congressional appropriators but hoped President Bush’s public support for AmeriCorps would help it prevail.

MICHAEL BROWN: President Bush went on national television in its 2002 state of the union address and he called on Americans to serve.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: My call tonight is for every American to commit at least two years, 4,000 hours over the rest of your lifetime, to the service of your neighbors and your nation.

MICHAEL BROWN: Hopefully the president will say, “this is something he wants to see get done, and if that happens, hundreds of AmeriCorps programs across the country can be saved, 20,000 AmeriCorps members can be put directly into service, and more importantly, thousands of children, environmental organizations can have the services that they need and are depending on and have had for the past ten years.

KWAME HOLMAN: Congressman Walsh says he realizes that funding for some volunteers could be in jeopardy, but that ultimately he is accountable to the taxpayers.

REP. JIM WALSH: The taxpayer, who is in this process, too. They support these programs, they pay for them. And they need to get their money’s worth out of them.

KWAME HOLMAN: Back at the Children’s Learning Center in Boston, Joelle Mora suggested Washington policymakers see the impact AmeriCorps volunteers have on children before decide to go cut the program’s funding.

JOELLE MORA: I feel that many of the politicians haven’t had the experience in the classroom, so they don’t know what is really going on. If they took some time to actually come in the classroom for a day or two and see the results that the volunteers have or the effect that they make on the children in their lives, they would understand why.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the budget cuts have caught up, and recently Jump-Start was forced to close three offices, leaving 123 college students without the jobs they were promised and 400 children without tutors. City Year has scaled back dramatically on staff, as well, and it’s almost certain that thousands of AmeriCorps volunteers nationwide will have to make other plans for the year ahead.