December 23, 2001 - Harrisburg Patriot: Volunteers of America; AmeriCorps sees historic chance to grow

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Volunteers of America; AmeriCorps sees historic chance to grow

Read and comment on this story from the Harrisburg Patriot on volunteerism in America and the strong support in Congress for expanding Americorps in this historic moment. Read Senator Wofford's comments on the Peace Corps and the parallels with Americorps at:

Volunteers of America; AmeriCorps sees historic chance to grow *

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Volunteers of America; AmeriCorps sees historic chance to grow

Dec 23, 2001 - The Harrisburg Patriot Author(s): Mark O'Keefe

WASHINGTON -- Look who's boosting AmeriCorps now: some of the same Republicans who once derided the national public service program as a Clinton-era boondoggle for pseudo-volunteers who couldn't get a real job.

On Wednesday, a task force led by Republicans gave President Bush its report on how more than 20,000 of the 50,000 AmeriCorps and Senior Corps volunteers can help provide homeland security in the war against terrorism. Details won't be released until after the new year begins.

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa. -- who once called it a program "for hippie kids to stand around a campfire holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya' at taxpayer expense" -- has introduced legislation to expand AmeriCorps by giving volunteers more ways to serve.

And Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is co-sponsoring a bill that would quintuple AmeriCorps to 250,000 recruits a year, outpacing the current annual recruiting totals of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Peace Corps combined.

"We don't think Sen. McCain has ever even voted for us before," said Les Lenkowsky, chief executive of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps. "The program hasn't changed a whole lot. But people are now paying attention to it."

Since Sept. 11, calls inquiring about AmeriCorps have jumped 30 percent, with the increase holding steady during the holidays, Lenkowsky said. And if bipartisan support for AmeriCorps holds, it could become the major vehicle for a new generation of Americans to discover not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country.

"Like Paul on the road to Damascus, a lot of Republicans have come to see the light," said Progressive Policy Institute President Will Marshall, who in 1988 developed one of the first Democratic blueprints for a domestic national service program.

The reasons for the conversions are manifold: a GOP patron in the White House, increasing partnership with faith-based charities, strong endorsement from cities and states, and, perhaps most persuasive, story after inspiring story of AmeriCorps volunteers making a positive difference.

Nicole Yeftich, a 28-year-old teacher and a former AmeriCorps volunteer, is one of those stories. Yeftich recently stood in front of a green chalkboard as nine eighth-graders in white blouses and navy skirts -- the girls uniform at Mother Seton Academy in Baltimore -- waited to begin their algebra test.

"Girls, put a box around your answers," said Yeftich, who became an instructor at the Roman Catholic school after she served as a full- time AmeriCorps volunteer there from 1996 to 1998.

Even though her salary is only $25,500 -- far less than she could make elsewhere -- Yeftich said she can't imagine a more rewarding job than giving children from low-income families a tuition-free education at a middle school where the maximum class size is 12, with boys and girls separated.

Mother Seton, enrollment 67, takes many pupils well behind in reading and writing skills and brings nearly all of them up to or surpassing an eighth-grade level when they graduate.

It's done with the financial support of Catholics, the donated services of four nuns and the help of government-subsidized AmeriCorps volunteers.

Sister Mary Bader, Mother Seton's principal, calls AmeriCorps volunteers "the greatest buy" and "best-kept secret" in education. For $5,000 per volunteer per year, Mother Seton gets 40 hours or more per week from enthusiastic college graduates, some of whom, such as Yeftich, become full-time employees.

To avoid accusations that the government is unconstitutionally sponsoring a church, AmeriCorps volunteers don't teach religion classes.

The $5,000 goes to Notre Dame AmeriCorps, one of 2,200 nonprofit organizations that administer the program at the state and local levels. Volunteers, meanwhile, receive a living allowance of about $10,000 annually, health insurance benefits and a $4,725 grant at the college of their choice for each year they serve, up to two years.

According to Congress' General Accounting Office, the average federal cost is less than $15,000 per volunteer. In the case of Yeftich, the benefits to society might be incalculable.

Yeftich grew up in Indianapolis and majored in history at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. She had a desire to serve inner-city children, but didn't feel prepared to plunge into an urban job right after graduation.

Becoming an AmeriCorps volunteer gave her an opportunity for hands- on exploration.

With her $9,450 educational award, Yeftich plans to pursue a graduate degree in educational policy, if she can muster the courage to leave the school she loves. She says she hopes the degree, combined with practical experience gained at Mother Seton, will enable her someday to develop successful educational approaches for low-income children in public schools.

"None of it would have happened if I hadn't done AmeriCorps," Yeftich said. "AmeriCorps redirected my life forever, to the point where I haven't arrived, but I know the direction my life is in -- service to others, particularly the poor. I'm very pleased with that."

During the "Republican Revolution" that began in 1994, the new GOP majority in Congress was hardly pleased with AmeriCorps, founded a year earlier by President Clinton.

"We feared," wrote McCain in the October issue of Washington Monthly, "it would be another 'big government program' that would undermine true volunteerism, waste money in 'make-work' projects, or be diverted into political activism.

"We were wrong."

Another prominent Republican in AmeriCorps' corner is former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, an AmeriCorps board member selected by Bush to become the next Republican National Committee chairman. In 2000, Racicot spearheaded an effort to line up state governors in support of the program; their letter asking Congress to reauthorize AmeriCorps was signed by 49 of the 50, including then-Gov. Bush of Texas.

Unlike past years, the 2002 reauthorization, expected in the spring, is not in doubt. In fact, Congress might consider expansion.

The most ambitious bill, co-sponsored by McCain and Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., would increase AmeriCorps' annual recruits to 250,000 by 2010. It would require that half the added 200,000 be employed in homeland security or public safety, a change some critics say could alter the focus on charities.

Lenkowsky, an academic specializing in philanthropy whose past jobs include a stint at the helm of a conservative think tank, called the worry unfounded.

"We're not going to have volunteers carrying guns and patrolling the borders, thank you very much," he said. "But in police and fire departments, there are many important jobs that don't necessarily need to be filled by trained officers."

Lenkowsky's Democratic predecessor at AmeriCorps, former Pennsylvania Sen. Harris Wofford, sees a window of opportunity for growth. But Wofford, who was an adviser to President Kennedy, says history proves such windows can close quickly.

In 1961, Kennedy founded the Peace Corps, the volunteer program for international service. By 1963, more than 7,000 volunteers were in the field, serving in 44 countries. But Kennedy wasn't satisfied.

"He told me he wanted the Peace Corps to reach 100,000 a year," Wofford recalled. "He said it would then be considered serious. In one decade, it would reach 1 million volunteers."

But Kennedy was assassinated, public idealism faded, and the Peace Corps -- which now recruits 3,500 annually -- never approached the level Kennedy envisioned.

"I don't want AmeriCorps to suffer the same fate," Wofford said. "The time to move is now."

Mark O'Keefe may be reached at

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