Return of the volunteers

February 01, 2004

REMEMBER AmeriCorps? It's the Clinton-era program that was billed as a domestic Peace Corps. Over the last 18 months, it has suffered charges of bad accounting and mismanagement, has seen its top executive ousted and was the recipient of a sizable budget cut.

But here's the really shocking part: President Bush has signed into law a record $441 million budget for AmeriCorps, more than $100 million more than the organization has ever been allocated. This makes it the equivalent of the Carolina Panthers going from a 1-15 record to the Super Bowl in two years. So what gives?

Supporters give credit to a variety of factors, from agency reforms to backing from President Bush and the program's key supporters in Congress, Sens. Christopher S. Bond, a Missouri Republican, and Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, who has long been the program's most ardent ally. Their efforts were greatly aided by grass-roots lobbying to keep AmeriCorps alive, including petitions signed by 44 governors and nearly 150 U.S. mayors.

No doubt such political muscle helped. But AmeriCorps' success is ultimately the triumph of a noble idea - that it's worthwhile to invest a modest amount of money to feed, house and help educate thousands of young people so they might teach, mentor, clean up neighborhoods, build homeless shelters or do some of the hundreds of other tasks that AmeriCorps volunteers perform.

In Baltimore, for instance, AmeriCorps volunteers can be found tutoring in city classrooms. They live on $9,300 for a year's work - and the promise of a $4,725 education grant. That's a bargain.

Two years ago, AmeriCorps seemed to be hitting its stride. In the post-9/11 call to national service, organizers were swamped with applicants. But then they dropped the ball. AmeriCorps accepted too many volunteers and failed to adequately finance the trust fund that pays out scholarships. Then questions arose last summer about $400,000 in employee bonuses just as AmeriCorps was tens of millions of dollars in the red.

Fortunately, the Corporation for National and Community Service, AmeriCorps' parent, seems back on a better path. Congress and the Bush administration have made reforms, and the organization's board has pledged stronger oversight. Last month, a new CEO, former AOL Time Warner executive David Eisner, 42, took over with a pledge of better accountability.

Whether AmeriCorps truly becomes the domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps remains to be seen. But its revival will be felt in places such as City Springs Elementary School in Southeast Baltimore. "Everybody is happy," says Sister Katherine Corr, who runs a statewide program that brings reading tutors to the school. "We're back on track."

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