Keep volunteer responders

March 05, 2006

Among the early responders to arrive in the Gulf Coast area after Katrina struck were some AmeriCorps volunteers who were specially trained in disaster relief. But looking to save money in 2007, the Bush administration proposes to cut out one of AmeriCorps' network of programs, with the expectation that the special work can be done by other AmeriCorps volunteers. That's unrealistic, and the program should be maintained.

Often called the domestic Peace Corps, AmeriCorps accepts volunteers ages 17 and over who work for 10 to 12 months with national nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity and Boys and Girls Clubs of America or small faith-based or other local groups to provide a variety of educational, health, housing and other services, often in low-income communities. Upon completion of their service, the program's more than 70,000 participants are eligible for grants of just under $5,000 that can be used for college expenses or to repay student loans.

One part of AmeriCorps, called the National Civilian Community Corps, consists of five residential campuses - including one in Perry Point, in Cecil County - where about 1,100 young people, ages 18 to 24, train for 10 months to work on service projects that tend to focus on homeland security and disaster relief. NCCC volunteers have also built and renovated houses, tutored students and helped the homeless.

Administration budget-cutters have put this piece of the AmeriCorps program on the chopping block, proposing to take $22 million of its $27 million in funding next year. While the residential component makes the program more expensive, the benefits of building specialized teams that can be dispersed to deal with victims of Gulf Coast hurricanes or West Coast fires are worth the investment. Given the administration's poor response to Katrina and the country's gaping social needs, this is no time to cut a program that has provided effective relief on both counts.

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