Agencies in Oklahoma worry about fate of AmeriCorps
In the weeks after a deadly tornado ripped through Moore in 2013, workers from the federal service program AmeriCorps led groups of volunteers into devastated neighborhoods, helping clear away debris and pulling down the remains of homes that had been all but destroyed in the storm.
Other AmeriCorps members answered emails and phone calls from residents who'd been affected by the tornado, helping connect those people with food and other assistance they needed.
Disaster response workers said those workers were a key part of the city's response to the storm.
Now, amid reports that Trump administration officials have targeted the AmeriCorps program for elimination, Oklahoma organizations that rely on the program are worried about what the future will bring.
But proponents of the move say the services the agency offers are better handled at the state and local level, without federal involvement.
On Feb. 17, the New York Times reported the White House budget office had drafted a list of federal agencies that could be eliminated in the Trump administration's 2017-2018 budget proposal. Included among those agencies was the Corporation for National and Community Service, which operates AmeriCorps, SeniorCorps, the Social Innovation Fund and other initiatives.
“We're hoping that that doesn't pan out, obviously," said Melinda Points, executive director of Oklahoma AmeriCorps, a nonprofit organization that manages AmeriCorps programs in the state.
Founded in 1994, AmeriCorps acts as a domestic counterpart to the Peace Corps. The program recruits more than 75,000 volunteers annually to work at sites across the country, trains them for the work they'll do and gives them a living allowance. Its sister organization, SeniorCorps, connects workers age 55 and older with volunteer opportunities.
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In Oklahoma, about 1,000 AmeriCorps participants work at 295 locations across the state, according to figures from the Corporation for National and Community Service. Another 6,433 SeniorCorps participants act as foster grandparents, senior companions and volunteers at 1,129 sites across the state.
Most of Oklahoma's AmeriCorps programs are education-related, Points said. For example, 50 full-time workers from the AmeriCorps program City Year provide in-school and after-school tutoring for students in Tulsa. Other workers offer reading help to underachieving elementary students in eight rural counties.
Another 370 workers from AmeriCorps' Teach for America program serve as teachers in the Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Lawton, El Reno and Muskogee school districts.
Most of the AmeriCorps workers across the state are doing work that likely would go undone otherwise, especially in small, rural school districts, she said.
“If AmeriCorps goes away, there's nobody to step in," she said.
AmeriCorps and its parent agency have been frequent targets of budget hawks over the decades. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, has repeatedly called for the agency to be eliminated.
Romina Boccia, a research fellow at the think tank, acknowledged that the agency does important work, but said those services are better handled at the state and local level.
When state and local agencies receive money or workers from federal programs like AmeriCorps, that assistance generally comes with various reporting requirements and strings attached — and reasonably so, Boccia said. Taxpayers have a right to know whether their tax dollars are being used effectively.
But those requirements also add bureaucratic layers that bog down the very work the federal dollars were intended to foster, she said.
Boccia said she doubted the services AmeriCorps provided would simply disappear if the agency were to be eliminated. In many cases, those services are already funded in part through private donations, and if public funding were to be eliminated, those private donors could make up the difference, she said.
"We don't really need the fed government involved in this," she said. "This is something that private contributors can do on their own.”
Among other services, AmeriCorps workers provide disaster relief and recovery through the agency's Disaster Response Team. In the weeks after the tornado on May 20, 2013, AmeriCorps workers from Missouri, Texas, Minnesota and Iowa came to Oklahoma to help local officials manage the disaster.
Among other services, AmeriCorps workers helped manage the thousands of volunteers who wanted to help with recovery, said Chris Fox, executive director of Serve Moore, a relief organization that was formed in response to the tornado.
That service was especially helpful, Fox said, because most of the roughly 50,000 volunteers who came to help could only stay for a day or two. But AmeriCorps workers remained in the city for weeks, meaning city officials and relief agencies knew they could rely on them to lead volunteer teams and help with other longer-term tasks.
"AmeriCorps was extremely helpful," Fox said.
John Smith, superintendent of the Forest Grove school district, said the program allows his district to offer services to its 185 students that it wouldn't be able to afford otherwise.
Located near Idabel, the district serves as a host site for AmeriCorps' Volunteers In Service To America, or VISTA, program. The program sends AmeriCorps volunteers to such sites to write grants, solicit donations and recruit volunteers to help with service projects. Workers based at Forest Grove also provide those services to nine other school districts in southeast Oklahoma.
In small, rural districts like Forest Grove, superintendents and other administrators tend to wear several hats, Smith said. Some drive school buses, coach athletic teams or serve as a school principal. Most mow the school's grass during the summer. With so many jobs, those superintendents generally don't have time to look for grant money to help pay for school programs.
Since the program started at Forest Grove, AmeriCorps volunteers have secured about $200,000 in grant funding for the district, Smith said. Some of that funding paid for tablet computers for students.
If the volunteer program ended, the district likelywould go "back to the old way" of finding grant funding, with Smith researching and applying for grants in whatever spare time he could find, he said. That arrangement would almost certainly mean less funding for the district at a time when it needs every dollar it can find.
“Schools in Oklahoma don't have any money. That's no secret," Smith said. "There doesn't seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel, either."