Volunteer programs are put on guard for cutbacks, while the Panetta Institute expands its reach.
Thursday, June 26, 2003
Photo by Brett Wilbur: Tara McCaw of VISTA.
The 12th Street exit off Highway 1 in Marina leads into a curving C of nonprofit facilities interspersed with abandoned military buildings. Home of the Fort Ord Reuse Authority (FORA), the area has also become a sort of promised land for homeless service providers. It''s also become a home base for one of California''s biggest programs for AmeriCorps*VISTA Volunteers.
AmeriCorps, a federally-funded program, recruits volunteers to do everything from digging trails to cleaning up a community after a tornado. VISTA, or Volunteers In Service To America, is a component of the AmeriCorps program. Volunteers work mostly with nonprofits to coordinate projects.
President Bush and his wife, Laura, have lauded the AmeriCorps program, yet programs around the country have been warned that they may not receive any funding next year.
At the Fort Ord childcare center operated by Children''s Services International, kids swing on the brand-new monkey bars. A springy rubberized surface provides a play area for infants. Plastic slides recently replaced metal ones, and splintering wood play structures were upgraded to plastic.
A little girl hangs on the chain-link fence separating the older kids'' side of the play yard from the little kids'' side. Like all the children using the center, her parents are homeless.
Down the road, emergency housing offers temporary shelter for some of these families. Other kids live with their grandparents, or spend their nights on friends'' couches.
"The kids have a lot going on," says Tara McCaw, who oversaw the recent upgrades to the play yard. "Their lives at home are not very structured, so we do things at a certain time here, to provide that sense of structure."
McCaw, 22, is herself living at the poverty level. McCaw puts in 40-hour-plus work weeks, but as a VISTA volunteer, she receives a stipend of only $776 a month. Volunteers are offered reduced rent at some of the transitional housing on Fort Ord, but only a few have taken advantage of it.
"Most of us just bunk up and share apartments," says Misty Koger, another VISTA volunteer who organizes McCaw''s program through the Coalition of Homeless Service Providers. "You get very frugal, but it''s okay."
Koger, 24, coordinates Project H.O.P.E. (Homelessness Overcome Through Personal Empowerment). Through the local H.O.P.E. office, 14 volunteers work with nonprofits on Fort Ord that provide services to the homeless. The program has just been approved to expand to include 31 volunteer positions.
But although Pres. Bush has asked for expansion of the entire AmeriCorps program, he has not interceded to stop proposed Congressional cuts to the program. So far, no local programs have been eliminated. But some of the perks of being a volunteer are already gone.
Until recently, volunteers had the choice of a $1,200 cash award at the end of their tenure, or a $4,700 educational award, to be used to pay off college loans or to enroll in graduate school. New enrollees to the program are being told that they no longer have the option of the educational award.
AmeriCorps spokesperson Sandy Scott says complicated accounting issues have forced a temporary freeze on the educational award.
"We''ve got 50,000 members in AmeriCorps as a whole," Scott says. "President Bush proposed we expand to 75,000 members, and I hope Congress will support that request."
But if the educational award isn''t restored, volunteers like Tara McCaw may be rethinking the level of personal sacrifice required for the program. "The educational award was definitely a big factor in me doing this," she says.
Down the road, at CSU Monterey Bay, the Panetta Institute is changing its VISTA program to include volunteers still in college. Currently, the program has involved only graduate students. The volunteers spend up to 20 hours a week reading to local kindergartners through third graders.
Sylvia Panetta explains that the Institute''s mandate is to inspire youth to lives of public service. She says the strength of the literacy program, combined with CSUMB''s service-learning component--which requires students to spend time working in the community--made it an ideal setting for a pilot program.
"It''s a new type of VISTA," she says. "They are learning as they serve."
Students in the new program will be able to gain academic credit for the time they spend volunteering, but Panetta says it''s no easy ride.
"They''ll have to work hard," she says. "They are expected to live in parity with those they serve. It''s for people who are really interested in serving their fellow human beings and making things better in the community."
And for recent college grads like Tara McCaw, who moved to Seaside last August from Maryland, it''s the opportunity to do something great while delaying a life decision.
"I didn''t know what to do with myself after I graduated," she says, as she grabs a two-year-old running out of his preschool classroom into the playground. "I definitely have a better idea now of what''s going on in the world."