State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

AmeriCorps, under Siege in Pa. Budget, Delivers 'Steak for Hamburgers'

on May 09, 2011 9:33 AM

Kate Doe and Courtney Hayden both have master's degrees. They work pretty much full-time for State College borough -- Doe as a neighborhood coordinator, Hayden as an environmental-sustainability professional.

After taxes, each of them takes home about $8,800 a year -- excruciatingly close to the 2011 national poverty threshold set by the federal government.

They could have had higher-paying jobs. Doe, 26, even turned down a job that would have tripled her income.

But for both women, impact outweighs money.

And through AmeriCorps -- the domestic community-service program that mirrors the overseas U.S. Peace Corps -- Doe and Hayden have fomented their impact.

"I chose AmeriCorps because I get to show I do care about service," Hayden, 25, said in a recent interview. " ... I think service spurs service. It feels good."

AmeriCorps has made possible Doe's and Hayden's positions in the borough, both created less than a year ago. They are AmeriCorps members, their yearlong State College appointments funded in part through the agency and in part through the borough. (State College contributes $12,000 to $14,000 a year to those two positions, borough Manager Tom Fountaine said; the rest comes from AmeriCorps.)

Now in its 18th year, AmeriCorps has been instrumental in allowing service-spirited Americans nationwide to assist educational, human-needs and environmental agencies. With backing from the state and federal governments, AmeriCorps forms alliances with those agencies, then enables participants to pursue work with said groups.

The agencies typically kick in about 50 percent of the bargain-basement labor expense.

In Pennsylvania, AmeriCorps has brought about 3,700 service positions to the commonwealth. The typical AmeriCorps participant is in his or her mid-20s and serves a couple one-year appointments, accepting an $11,800 annual stipend. Each participant may receive a $5,350 educational award upon the conclusion of an appointment.

Trouble here is, as many as 2,700 of those 3,700 Pennsylvania AmeriCorps positions could disappear under Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed state budget for 2011-2012.

Much of the public dialogue about his budget plan has focused on public education, university funding, prison spending and the Marcellus Shale. You'll be hard-pressed to find reportage anywhere about its impact on AmeriCorps, though.

"It's really important right now because a lot of services are going away," said Carol Overly, program director for the Pennsylvania Mountain Service Corps branch of AmeriCorps. "We help to prop up the weak parts of our community ... the parts that need help. There may be more of those now than ever. ...

"We're really hoping and rooting that we can still exist when this all said and done."

The issue, as Overly explained it, boils down to this:

Every year, the state kicks in $350,000 directly for AmeriCorps. Because the state supports the program, the federal government then ponies up $8 million to $10 million a year.

Together, those state and federal contributions enable 2,700 AmeriCorps positions statewide -- including Doe's and Hayden's -- to be funded. (The other 1,000 AmeriCorps positions in Pennsylvania are funded through other avenues, namely through direct federal funding of their respective parent organizations.)

But if the state's $350,000 contribution goes away, so, too, will the $8 million to $10 million federal contribution, Overly said. The governor's budget plan proposes to eliminate the $350,000 state contribution.

"I know AmeriCorps is an invaluable program with the participants not only in public education, but in the private sector, as well," said Joseph M. Macharola, executive director of Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8 educational agency. Service experience helps equip many AmeriCorps members for advanced careers once their service appointments expire.

"The (government's) return on the investment is immeasurable," Macharola said. " ... It pumps into the local economy. It is progressive in nature. Opportunities are endless for workers and from the program as a whole.

"I would hope that the legislators take a very authentic and bona fide look at this," he went on. " ... I would hope that our legislators are, in good heart and good spirit, able to see the benefit of this program."

In State College, if the borough loses its two AmeriCorps-funded positions, the municipality will have to reduce the scope of its work in sustainability and neighborhood relations, borough Manager Tom Fountaine said. The borough, as a community, has put a premium on both fronts.

"I can't tell you how happy we've been with both Courtney (Hayden) and Kate (Doe)," he said last week. "They've done a great job and have been worth way more than the program has provided in terms of funding."

AmeriCorps, Fountaine said, offers "one of the highest-value returns for the investment of any program I've been involved with for most of my career."

Doe, who coordinated the community response to State Patty's Day this year, said joining AmeriCorps was among the three most important decisions of her life.

"And I think it really set the tone for the rest of my life," she said. " ... It's a great position where you learn and grow."

Her borough work allows her, among numerous priorities, to engage local Penn State students in volunteer work; to help develop a stronger rapport among the university and borough neighborhoods; and to help neighborhoods brainstorm what they'd like to see in the future. Doe led a community volunteerism day in February -- which saw more than 500 participants -- and was responsible for the Lion Walk back in August.

Hayden, for her part, has done research to help the borough's greenhouse-gas-mitigation plan, along with work on green-building policies, borough gardens and related State College environmental priorities.

She could have gone after more lucrative work, but the civic efforts have really engaged her potential, she said.

"The government is getting ... a high value from this," Hayden said.

Doe said it better than I could:

"The government's getting steak for hamburgers, man."

Agreed. Stay tuned.

Next Article
State College Board to Weigh in Monday on Cost-Cut Proposals
May 09, 2011 6:07 AM
State College Board to Weigh in Monday on Cost-Cut Proposals
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