Proposed Trump budget would eliminate popular federal program
By Marcy Stamper
The Methow Valley would be a different place without the contributions of dozens of vigorous young people working as AmeriCorps volunteers.
Over the past half-dozen years, individuals and groups have helped with remodeling and landscaping at TwispWorks, built fences for wildfire survivors, cleared mud deposited by flash floods, and taught kids to read — all at no direct cost to local residents and businesses.
While some of these projects attract attention once they’re finished, the grit and hard work behind them can be fairly invisible. And these unseen contributions by AmeriCorps volunteers could go away completely if Pres. Donald Trump’s budget — which eliminates the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) — is approved. CNCS administers AmeriCorps, VISTA, Senior Corps and related service programs.
“The teams have been essential in contributing to the redevelopment of the campus,” said Tori Karpenko, director of campus operations for TwispWorks, where volunteer crews have built utility infrastructure, demolished old buildings (reclaiming the lumber for other uses) and poured concrete. Their work accelerated the pace at which the campus could accommodate new tenants and become a public gathering place.
In the past, TwispWorks sponsored AmeriCorps volunteers who focused on economic development, helping artists and other businesses create an online presence. Other volunteers worked with youths at the Valley Teen Center.
The entire county has benefited from AmeriCorps’ National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) division. Okanogan County alone had 150 volunteers this past year, according to Mary Love, a public affairs specialist with CNCS.
Just this month, an 11-person crew based with the Okanogan County Long Term Recovery Group (OCTLRG) in Pateros helped rebuild livestock fencing and built a pole barn to store lumber for housing rebuilds. They also installed solar panels at several homes built for survivors.
In addition to their 40-hour work week, the NCCC team members are required to do independent service projects for other nonprofits and municipalities, said Karpenko. They helped Confluence Gallery at the Trashion Fashion fundraiser and did Earth Day cleanup in Twisp and at Pearrygin Lake State Park, he said.
On the chopping block?
The federal government allocated $1.03 billion for CNCS for the current fiscal year, which amounts to about .03 percent of the federal budget. But Trump’s proposed budget provides only a small amount of funding for next year — just 12 percent of the 2017 appropriation — which is designated to shut down the program. All CNCS programs would be eliminated entirely in 2019.
CNCS administrators and Washington senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray have lobbied to preserve the funding. The volunteer programs reportedly have wide support from Congress and the public, and some elected officials support an increase in funding, according to studies by CNCS. Every dollar spent on the programs leverages another 64 cents in additional resources, they said.
“The impact of an AmeriCorps member is priceless, and I will fight President Trump’s plans to defund this vital investment in our communities,” said Murray in conjunction with the announcement of $25 million committed to service programs in Washington next year.
Washington Representative Dan Newhouse (R-4th District) voted to fund CNCS for the current fiscal year. “Rep. Newhouse believes strongly in the benefits of supporting public service, and he supported that funding legislation to continue the work of AmeriCorps,” said Will Boyington, a spokesperson for Newhouse.
Newhouse, who volunteered himself in the aftermath of the Carlton Complex Fire, was interested in seeing the role AmeriCorps plays in disaster relief, said Carlene Anders, executive director of the OCTLRG. He met with the NCCC team in Pateros as they wrapped up their work in Okanogan County earlier this month.
“[Newhouse] also believes that every government agency and program should be held accountable to operate as efficiently as possible on behalf of taxpayers. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Newhouse understands that the appropriations process begins in Congress, with the administration’s budget viewed as a list of the administration’s priorities,” said Boyington.
“We wouldn’t be where we are without these teams coming in,” said Anders, who said the skills and deployment schedule of the NCCC crews helped prepare for and complete work by other volunteers, who often only have occasional weekends to spare. This is the fourth NCCC team deployed to help OCTLRG with fire recovery.
New skills and ‘giving back’
After a morning spent rebuilding burned fences in 95-degree heat, the NCCC volunteers were still eager to show off the large storage barn they constructed near Black Canyon. The barn will house construction materials for OCTLRG’s homes for fire survivors.
None of the volunteers had ever done construction before, said Laurel Johnston, a recent high school graduate from Arizona. The group had high praise for the local contractor who taught them construction skills and supervised the project.
“AmeriCorps is the best thing I could have possibly done since graduating high school. It gave me confidence and self-worth,” said Marieanne Porter, who was finishing up her second year with NCCC.
Building the tall pole barn — including hand-winching the roof trusses — taught the group skills beyond just building.
“I had a lot more fear than Marieanne — I felt so damn useless,” said Randy Nichols, a volunteer from Maine. “We conquered a lot of fears.”
Building the storage barn was their most satisfying project. “We could see it from start to finish and feel a sense of efficacy,” said Johnston. Still, while they were working on it — for example, hand-digging holes for dozens of posts — she said she never thought they’d see the whole barn completed. “We are so proud of this,” said Porter. They also moved about 15 tons of lumber that will be stored in the barn.
The crew started their term helping with flood recovery in Baton Rouge, then planted trees — 14,000 in three weeks — in forests near Yosemite that burned four years ago. Their next project was in Helena, Montana, where they did minor construction at a summer camp and worked on irrigation and planting at a community garden. Helping OCTLRG with fire recovery was their last stop in their 10-month deployment.
Although AmeriCorps and the related service programs have 80,000 volunteers a year, many people are not familiar with the programs. No one in her Georgia hometown knew about the programs, said Porter, who met a recruiter who encouraged her to join. “They were right,” she said. “I love it — I’m obsessed.”
Larsen Volk was graduating from college and “starting to panic about what would come next.” His sister had volunteered with Teach for America, a CNCS division, so he decided to check out the program’s other volunteer opportunities.
Doing work that would give back to others was a key motivation for all of them. “It’s all about making leaders, and team-building and working with others,” said Johnston.
Because the crews live and work closely together, they typically form strong bonds and learn about conflict resolution. “You meet people from all over, people you would never meet,” said Porter.
Volunteers receive a small stipend, plus food, housing and health care. They don’t have to pay back their college loans while with AmeriCorps, and CNCS pays the interest that accrues during their term of service.
In addition to helping communities recover from natural disasters, CNCS sponsors foster grandparents, who help get kids excited about learning. Other groups support military families during and after deployment or work with economically disadvantaged populations.
Most CNCS programs accept anyone over age 17, with no upper age limit. NCCC is a much smaller program for people between the ages of 18 and 24, with just 1,600 volunteers nationwide.