Americorps Education Awards Cut off to Faith-Based Volunteer Network

After 15 years of participation in the AmeriCorps education award program, Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) has learned that its access to the program has been cut off. Federal budget cuts mean the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) is not funding such grants to the volunteer networking organization of which BVS is a member, for the 2011-2012 term.

Brethren Volunteer Service workers Larry and JoAnn Sims started in May as hosts of the World Friendship Center in Hiroshima, Japan. Above: a press conference at City Hall: (from left) Morishita-sensai, Larry Sims, JoAnn Sims, and Michiko Yaname. Below: the Sims present roses to Hibakusha with May birthdays, at a nursing home. Hibakusha are survivors of the A-bomb.

BVS participates in the AmeriCorps program through the Catholic Volunteer Network (CVN), a networking organization for a number of faith-based volunteer groups. BVS membership in CVN means that its volunteers may apply to receive the $5,350 education award from AmeriCorps, and BVS gains access to other benefits like a health insurance program for its volunteers.

“The decision process for the 2011 federal budget was particularly grueling, with several months of delays and continuing resolutions,” said a notice from CVN. “The final decision had a devastating effect on CNCS and programs operating under the corporation’s umbrella. CNCS was funded at $1.1 billion, which is $72 million below the 2010 fiscal level. The Learn and Serve America program was cut entirely from the 2011 budget. AmeriCorps programs received a $23 million cut. On top of these budget cuts, CNCS received nearly twice the amount of applications for national service funds, as compared to last year. Over 300 organizations applied for Education Awards Program grants–of these programs, only 50 were funded.”

“There’s dismay” among the BVS staff, said director Dan McFadden. The cuts will be a loss particularly for volunteers who enter BVS carrying large college debt, he said. To support these volunteers BVS may have to look for other ways the church can help, such as paying the interest on school loans which average $20,000 to $30,000 for current volunteers. “The debt load that volunteers come out of college with continues to rise,” McFadden said. “We have had volunteers with up to $50,000.”

Thirteen BVS volunteers currently are in the AmeriCorps education award program. In 2009-2010, 21 BVSers received the award, but that was an unusual year, said McFadden. Since BVS began participating in the program in 1996, more than 120 BVSers have received the education award, estimates orientation coordinator Callie Surber. This represents some $570,000 or more that has helped BVS volunteers repay student loans, she said.

Former BVS director Jan Schrock was instrumental in making it possible for faith-based volunteer organizations to participate in AmeriCorps, McFadden said. At first, BVS and other such groups worked through the National Council of Churches to participate with AmeriCorps. CVN then picked up administration of the program for the past 13 years.

However, loss of access to the education award is not expected to affect recruitment for BVS. “Most BVSers don’t come into BVS because of the AmeriCorps education award,” McFadden said. Actually, BVS staff recently had been assessing whether to continue the connection with AmeriCorps, because of new requirements that could have forced BVS to “take the faith language out” of its application, he said. “In evaluating this we asked past volunteers that received the AmeriCorps award how many would not have come into BVS if it hadn’t been for the education award?” Only three out of the 20 who responded said they would not have entered BVS without the award.

Other organizations will be harder hit, McFadden said, such as Jesuit Volunteer Corps which has up to 300 volunteers participating with AmeriCorps. The cuts do not apply to organizations enrolled in the 2010-2011 grant term, including BVS, which will receive its full education awards for the rest of the year. Programs like BVS also may find other ways to access AmeriCorps education awards, such as through state programs in places where volunteers work.

“The Catholic Volunteer Network has begun to reach out to community service and government leaders to determine creative solutions for this crisis,” the CVN notice said. “We would also like to encourage you all to advocate on behalf of the Catholic Volunteer Network, our member organizations, and the AmeriCorps program as a whole.”

McFadden asked for prayers for the staff at CVN. “Their jobs are likely at stake.”

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