AmeriCorps volunteer freeze delays programs

By LIZ SIDOTI, Associated Press Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Fewer AmeriCorps workers are tutoring children in Ohio and Missouri schools. In Maine and Florida, some projects to restore nature trails are on hold. And, in California, efforts to preserve fisheries have been scaled back.

While 50,000 volunteers have continued working on 2,000 service projects nationwide, 2,300 volunteers are waiting to start 79 other projects that cannot begin this month because of a freeze on adding volunteers.

AmeriCorps enrolled more volunteers last year than it had planned. The agency stopped enrolling recruits in November after determining that there was not enough money in the National Service Trust to pay the $4,700 education grants volunteers earn for one year of service.

Keekee Lastery, 22, of Cleveland, 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 northwest Ohio. She had to put that plan on hold, as well as a second year of volunteering through AmeriCorps with the Wood County Special Olympics.

"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."

Sandy Scott, a spokesman for the Corporation for National and Community Service, AmeriCorps' parent company, said enrollment and the programs are expected to resume once Congress passes new spending bills. That could come later this week.

Program directors say they hope that recruits will remain available.

"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, of Berea, was supposed to work with that program to earn money to take the only eight courses she needs to receive her college degree. A single mother of five children ages 2 to 10, Otis said she is drafting 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, of Struthers, say they will wait no matter how long it takes.

"I have faith that it will work itself out," Perez said. "This was the path that I was meant to follow."

The sophomore at Youngstown State University was recruited to volunteer with Youngstown Reads Early, which offers tutoring for children through age 5.

It's one of the eight programs in Ohio that have a total of 300 slots unfilled. Others include a program helping at-risk teenagers and poor families acquire computer skills in Cleveland, and one that helps juvenile offenders learn construction trades in Dayton.

In Missouri, tutors assigned to 16 St. Louis schools have not been able to report for duty. Other volunteers are waiting to train as an emergency response team to help public safety officials dealing with natural or man-made catastrophes.

In California's Watershed Stewards Project, 28 workers had been expected to join the 25 volunteers working to restore and retain the endangered salmon and steelhead populations. The project works on coastal conservation from San Francisco to the Oregon state line. The ACCORD for Youth program in Oakland cut some after-school programs it planned to run with community groups for Cambodian and Vietnamese children.

Most of the trail construction and nature area maintenance projects that the Maine Conservation Corps was to work on are on hold. Similar projects in Florida's state parks -- along with others such as making the areas more accessible for the disabled -- aren't getting done either.

"It's an administrative issue, but it's affecting folks across the nation in a way that is so unfair," said Maryalice Crofton, a director with the Maine Commission for Community Service. "The bottom line is the work's not getting done even though we have people lined up to do it."

Some worry the freeze will weaken relationships that AmeriCorps programs nationwide 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 say the freeze already is having long-term implications because it's hindering recruiting under way for programs that are to start in the fall.

"The education grants keep us competitive with recruiting, but you can't promise something if you're not certain it's going to be available," said Jim Lindsay, executive director Catholic Network of Volunteer Service. The Washington-based organization sponsors 2,000 AmeriCorps positions in 130 programs across 44 states.

Scott said he does not believe the integrity or popularity of the program is in danger.

"We believe the management changes already under way are strengthening the program, and interest in AmeriCorps remains stronger than ever," he said.

He said online applications jumped 86 percent last year and the Web site receives 47,000 different visitors a week, up 68 percent over one year ago.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)