AmeriCorps’ mission appears undervalued

They tutor needy kids. They mentor at-risk teens. They clear trails and recruit volunteers. AmeriCorps members serve Snohomish County in a number of meaningful ways. And they serve because they care – about their country, their community, their education, their future.

That’s something President Bush and the House Appropriations Committee may not fully understand. If Bush was familiar with this domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps, why did he ask Congress to cut its funding by $20 million?

If the House Appropriations Committee was aware of AmeriCorps’ value, why did it slash $41 million more and reduce every full-time member’s post-service education award by $675?

On July 18, U.S. senators will weigh in. Unfortunately, the president and House members have already sent a discouraging message. AmeriCorps stands to lose $94 million in three years – a damaging 30 percent chop.

“I’d fight to the death for full funding,” said Peter Jackson, an Everett native who sits on the Washington Commission for National and Community Service. “But what’s really irritating is the education award.”

Currently, members receive $4,725 for college after one year of service. They’re much more valuable than that.

According to Adam Cornell of Edmonds, who sits on the commission with Jackson, 57 AmeriCorps members provided Snohomish County with more than $700,000 worth of service last year – roughly $12,000 each. Mix in the incalculable personal benefits to those served by AmeriCorps, and the program’s value becomes clear.

“AmeriCorps members sacrifice in order to help people and get money for college,” Jackson said. “They don’t deserve this.”

Jackson is worried about recruitment. More than 100,000 people participate in AmeriCorps nationwide and Washington boasts more members per capita than any other state. But no other job in the U.S. pays, legally, a sub-minimum wage.

“We want AmeriCorps to look like America,” Jackson said. “We’d like former foster children to sign up, immigrants and the poor. Right now they can’t afford to.”

If funding isn’t restored, local organizations will feel the squeeze. Snohomish County’s Youth Connection, based in Everett, manages about 20 AmeriCorps members.

“Cuts could deal a devastating blow to our community,” said Samantha Spitzer, Youth Connection director.

AmeriCorps members at Youth Connection work with at-risk teens. Sometimes they serve high school classes, other times after school one-on-one. AmeriCorps members stress leadership skills and academics.

Furthermore, AmeriCorps churns out concerned, active citizens who want to be part of a highly educated workforce.

As Congress ponders service spending, Spitzer will troll for fresh AmeriCorps volunteers – while there are still some left.

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