AmeriCorps denies grant for CHART
URBANA – The Crisis Nursery is known by another name to many in the 5-and-under set. They like to call it "Polly Mae's house."
Polly Mae Rosa is the AmeriCorps member who cares for children every weekday at the nursery, a place where parents can take their kids if they're homeless, lose their regular child care or just need a break. Many moms tell Rosa, "My children won't stop talking about you."
"It's a good feeling to have a little kid walk in and come running toward you. There's nothing better," Rosa said.
So good, in fact, that she had signed on for another year at the nursery – until she learned last week that the program that funded her position and those at nine other Champaign County agencies had lost its AmeriCorps grant.
The 8-year-old CHART program – for Comprehensive Homeless Assistance Response Team – run by Provena Behavioral Health was denied funding this year because of severe cuts in AmeriCorps at the national and state levels.
Rosa, 24, a native of Neoga and an Eastern Illinois University graduate, was devastated. She spent Thursday and Friday saying goodbye to her "little buddies."
"It's been a good experience. I've learned a lot about myself and other people, and the kids, the kids," Rosa said, her voice trailing off. "It makes me cry."
AmeriCorps funding for the state of Illinois plummeted by nearly 60 percent this year, the result of mismanagement at the federal level, officials said.
The Corporation for National Community Service, the agency that administers AmeriCorps grants, receives funding both for operating costs and for the educational awards given to AmeriCorps volunteers when they complete their service. Besides a modest living allowance, volunteers receive student loan deferments, health insurance and training, as well as an education award that can be used to help pay for college, vocational training or student loans.
A report from the Inspector General found the corporation had approved more positions – and education awards – than its trust could support. The report also raised questions about how the accounting was handled, said Asta Ardickas Bonheyo, executive director of the Illinois Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service, which administers AmeriCorps grants in the state.
In response, Congress froze enrollment in AmeriCorps last November and ordered the corporation to find the money to cover the education awards, she said. Much of it came out of operations.
"The deficit was just so big," she said. "There's no new federal money out there to help with the situation. So AmeriCorps funding was drastically cut."
Illinois' AmeriCorps funding dropped from roughly $8 million to about $3.3 million, and the number of AmeriCorps positions in the state fell from 630 to 271.
As a result, less than one-third of the 35 applications submitted were funded, Bonheyo said. Ten previously funded programs did not receive grants this year.
"CHART was not singled out. It's a great program," Bonheyo said. "When the funds just aren't there, there's nothing you can do."
Provena received word in late July that its $217,600 grant proposal would not be funded, said Kathy Kessler, program director for CHART.
"We were very surprised," Kessler said. "We thought if anything, we would get half-funded."
CHART had been Champaign County's only AmeriCorps program. But the county picked up a new AmeriCorps grant in this funding cycle – - $89,600 for the Eastern Illinois Foodbank to alleviate unmet hunger needs in its 14-county service area. It's a three-year project, as opposed to the ongoing CHART program, but Bonheyo said that didn't figure in the board's decision.
The CHART program paid for AmeriCorps members at the Center for Women in Transition, A Woman's Place, Salvation Army, TIMES Center, Mental Health Center, Regional Planning Commission, Crisis Nursery, Persons Assuming Control of their Environment, Champaign County Youth Detention Center and Homestead Apartments.
"This was a very, very worthwhile program," Kessler said. "AmeriCorps members were able to provide services to homeless individuals who came into any of those agencies. They had created a network among themselves to get homeless individuals and families and youth at risk into services very quickly."
At PACE, the AmeriCorps members helped those with disabilities find housing. At the Regional Planning Commission, they worked with the rent assistance program. At the Center for Women in Transition, they served as the children's program coordinator and the assessment and outreach coordinator – two vital positions, said Executive Director Kathy Sims.
"It stings. It hurts. It's very painful," Sims said. "I think it's a shame because it's been a very cost-effective program for an agency like ours."
The shelter won't be able to sustain both AmeriCorps positions, but combined its share of the two stipends into one to preserve the children's coordinator job. It's not as cost-effective, as the agency must pick up insurance costs formerly covered by AmeriCorps. But it's important to have someone working with the children at the shelter, providing activities and supervising child care volunteers, Sims said.
"There's no way we can just let it go," Sims said.
For now, other staff will do assessment and outreach – talking to women who call the shelter to determine their needs, link them with available community resources, and help them get settled when they move in.
At the Crisis Nursery, program Director Laura Swinford said it will be difficult to replace the dedication and commitment of Rosa and other AmeriCorps volunteers who've worked there the past four years. All were recent college graduates full of enthusiasm and idealism.
"Their dedication to children was amazing," Swinford said. "It kind of reminds everybody else why we do what we do.
"We were very, very disappointed, not only for us but for the community," she said. "The benefits that we as a community get from the AmeriCorps program far outweigh the costs."
AmeriCorps funding for CHART runs through the end of August. Kessler said she's working on "other avenues" to replicate at least part of the program. She may apply for AmeriCorps funding for next year, or look for money within the community.
Bonheyo said she wasn't sure whether more AmeriCorps funds might be available next year. The politics involved are "even more complicated" than the funding, she said, with some congressmen wanting to gut the program and others "who would fight for us to the end."
There's been some movement for a supplemental AmeriCorps appropriation in Congress, though that appears to be on hold until at least September.
It's supported by both Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and U.S. Rep. Timothy Johnson, R-Ill., she said.
"We're keeping our fingers crossed," Bonheyo said.
In the meantime, she has urged agencies who lost their AmeriCorps grants to look into funding from VISTA – Volunteers in Service To America – and the National Civilian Community Corps., both of which are affiliated with AmeriCorps but have different appropriations.
You can reach Julie Wurth at (217) 351-5226 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.