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Archive for Thursday, January 30, 2003

AmeriCorps freeze puts some projects on hold

January 30, 2003

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— Some AmeriCorps volunteers who planned to tutor children in Ohio and Missouri this year have not yet stepped into classrooms. In Maine and Florida, AmeriCorps projects to restore nature trails are on hold. And in California, efforts to preserve fisheries have been scaled back.

While 50,000 AmeriCorps volunteers work on 2,000 projects nationwide, 2,300 recruits are waiting to start 79 other projects that were supposed to begin this month.

The reason: The organization is a victim of its own success. It signed up more recruits than it could afford.

AmeriCorps stopped putting new volunteers to work -- and put their projects on hold -- after determining in November that it would not have enough money to pay some of the recruits the $4,700 education grants that they get for one year of service.

Sandy Scott, a spokesman for the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that oversees AmeriCorps, said the projects were expected to resume once Congress passed new spending bills, perhaps as early as this week.

AmeriCorps is sort of a domestic Peace Corps, approved by Congress in 1993 under the Clinton administration. It gives volunteers education grants plus about $9,300 in living expenses per year.

AmeriCorps attributes its budget problems to a sudden increase in volunteers that began in 2000 and continued after the terrorist attacks and President Bush's call for more Americans to do their part. In 2001, enrollment hit a record 59,200, above the target of 50,000.

AmeriCorps requested $57 million for the education trust fund in the budget year that began Oct. 1, but Congress has yet to complete its spending bills.

Keekee Lastery, 22, was counting on the grant she earned for AmeriCorps service last year to pay for graduate school beginning this month at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. And she was expecting to pay for living expenses while in school with the stipend she would get while working a second year through AmeriCorps with the Special Olympics.

Keekee Lastery, 22, an AmeriCorps volunteer, is waiting for her
education grant from AmeriCorps so she can pay her tuition and
return to school. AmeriCorps is in a funding crunch because it
signed up more recruits than it could afford.

Keekee Lastery, 22, an AmeriCorps volunteer, is waiting for her education grant from AmeriCorps so she can pay her tuition and return to school. AmeriCorps is in a funding crunch because it signed up more recruits than it could afford.

But she put her schooling on hold because of the enrollment freeze and because she has not received her grant from last year yet.

"I had such an enriching experience last year, so I really want to serve again," Lastery said. "But if it goes on too much longer, I'll have to find something else to do."

Program directors said they hoped that recruits would remain available once the budget impasse was broken.

"Who knows how many of the 50 people that we recruited will stick around? Some of them will be gone by that time," said Cathy Johnston, AmeriCorps coordinator for the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio.

Sabrina Otis, 29, was supposed to work with that program to earn money toward her college degree. Otis, a single mother of five children ages 2 to 10, said she was drawing up resumes.

"I want to stay, but I can't just wait around. I am going to have to get a regular job," Otis said.

Others, such as Zaida Perez, 28, said they would wait no matter how long it took. "I have faith that it will work itself out," said Perez, a Youngstown State University student who was recruited to teach reading to children. "This was the path that I was meant to follow."

Some worry the freeze will weaken relationships that AmeriCorps programs have built with community groups.

"Our unfilled slots mean that our community, especially the 20 groups we partner with, are losing faith in the AmeriCorps program," said Chandra Egan, program director of ACCORD for Youth in California, which places 40 volunteers in schools, social service organizations and community groups. "How do you rebuild that trust?"

Others said the freeze already was having long-term effects because it was hindering recruiting for programs set to start in the fall.

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