FEATURE ‌ Americut? 

Proposed federal budget may signal end of federal volunteerism

click to enlarge Joseph Rieu and Angela Prentice may have to find another framework for serving the community if Americorps NCCC is cut from the federal budget
  • Joseph Rieu and Angela Prentice may have to find another framework for serving the community if Americorps NCCC is cut from the federal budget

If Congress approves the Bush Administration's proposed 2007 federal budget in the coming months, the Americorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) program could be totally eliminated. As NCCC volunteers continue to play a crucial role in the Hurricane Katrina recovery project, the blow could not come at a worse time.

In its 12-year history, NCCC has made an enormous impact in the Lowcountry, too. Mepkin Abbey, Crisis Ministries, the United Methodist Relief Center, Palmetto Trails, Fort Sumter, Summerville Elementary School, and the Disability Resource Center have all utilized NCCC teams in their service work.

Charleston is the hub for Americorps' Southeast region, with facilities based at the former naval base housing 300 volunteers. All in all, 621,000 hours of community service have been performed by NCCC teams in the Lowcountry, valued at nearly $11 million.

Comprised of 1,100 volunteers, NCCC was created as a subsidiary to Americorps in 1994. The program, created to "improve the environment, enhance education, increase public safety, and assist with disaster relief and unmet human needs," groups volunteers into teams of 11 that travel throughout a region of the U.S. for 10 months. The groups stop in five varied locations along the way to provide a diverse array of services to communities in need. Aged 18--24, over one-third of whom are college graduates, NCCC members receive a $4,000 stipend and a $4,725 education award for their 1,700 hours of service over ten months. The benefits include shared room and board ($4.15/day for food, per person), "leadership development, team building skills, increased self-confidence and the satisfaction of knowing they have made a real difference."

This week, an NCCC team will arrive in town to work with Clean City Sweeps, contacting and preparing materials for groups to participate in litter clean-up, planting trees with the city's horticultural department, and patrolling for litter during the Cooper River Bridge Run on Saturday, April 1.

Chuck Swenson, executive director of Sea Island Habitat for Humanity, estimates that NCCC labor has accounted for at least 10 complete houses on Johns Island.

"NCCC has done a super job of encouraging the youth of America to get involved in community service," says Swenson. "All of our groups have been extremely talented and energetic — they really have a sense of how valuable their services are," says Swenson.

With an annual budget of only $25 million to operate its five centers and pay its 1,100 employees, it's difficult to comprehend how such a positive, successful program could be cut.

CEO David Eisner, of the National Corporation for Community Service, a Bush appointee, explains that because the program provides housing, its economic returns are not worth the cost. Nonetheless, NCCC's annual budget is trivial in comparison to federal spending elsewhere. With the cost of the war averaging around $177 million dollars a day, the annual budget of NCCC is spent each morning in Iraq before most Americans get out of bed.

Eighty percent of NCCC teams nationwide are currently serving in the Gulf Coast, responding to the ongoing devastation caused by last year's hurricanes and their aftermath. So far, 542 emergency response centers have been aided by NCCC, refurbishing 160 homes, serving 1,085 tons of food, distributing 2,790 tons of clothing, and assisting over 1,058,000 people.

Service trips to Louisiana and Mississippi have been popular this year among college students seeking a constructive alternative to typical spring breaks, indicating a strong awareness and desire to serve among today's youth. Since its founding in 1994, NCCC teams have responded to every major disaster America has suffered.

If the budget passes, the 2006 class beginning in July would serve only six months, and NCCC would disband by January 2007. Despite this, application numbers in February and March have equaled years past.

Brad Cashman, a NCCC team leader from August 2004 to June 2005, currently serves as the volunteer coordinator for Crisis Ministries in Charleston. He speaks emphatically about the importance of this Americorps program.

"To understand America's problems you have to come face-to-face with them. NCCC allows people to understand these core problems and develop solutions," says Cashman, whose team's projects included Habitat for Humanity house building in Ft. Myers, Fla., mentoring and tutoring in St. Tammany, La., and counseling and caretaking for disabled adults and children at Camp Easter Seals in Nashville, Tenn. — a post that required changing and showering the residents, and often necessitated 65-hour work weeks.

"If you take this away, who's going to step up and replace what NCCC has started?" asks Cashman. "The war aside, giving breaks to the rich and taking away programs that help the poor is a terrible decision the Bush Administration is making. Any community directly supported by NCCC should take this as a shock — it's a domestic attack."

"I think [NCCC] produces wonderful leaders. I like not only what it's done for us but what it's done for the team members," says Habitat's Swenson. "I believe that in the future they'll contribute to lots of charitable organizations across the country. (Losing the NCCC teams) would certainly hurt us in our ability to build affordable houses. It's really bad news for charities across the country."

Although Congress won't vote on the proposed budget until this summer, Americorps employees and alumni alike are hoping lawmakers will decide against skimming off domestic social welfare programs to compensate for the deficit caused by the war in Iraq.

"The people applying want to serve, and they are very upset that this opportunity may be taken away from them," says Angela Sarrels, a community relations specialist for the NCCC Southeast Campus located in Charleston. "I know we have a lot of support out there."

President Bush posed with NCCC team members in Florida two years ago, claiming, "I'm a strong believer in Americorps. These are good kids from around the country who are dedicating their time to help America." Still, alumni like Cashman don't expect Republican legislators from South Carolina like Rep. Henry Brown and Sen. Jim DeMint, both of whom declined comment for this story, to vote against Bush's budget plan.

Crisis Ministries' Cashman echoed the sentiments of many Americorps volunteers when he put forth the challenge that "more people need to step up and take a role in communities."

Because they are federal employees, current NCCC members are not even allowed to speak freely about the situation or organize to save the program and their jobs. Alumni are stepping up to the task, forming websites like www.lifetimeofservice.org to spread the word about NCCC's vital mission, hopefully in time to influence the Senate and House votes.

"Poverty is spreading in our cities, and Americorps is essentially a training program to show communities what they can do to respond," says Cashman. "It's a flame that will hopefully catch fire and bring light to communities that have lost sight of their self worth and pride."


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