COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Karen Mitchell spends her weekends tutoring and chasing after energetic 7- and 8-year-olds with poor social skills and motor disabilities.
Mitchell, a junior psychology major at the University of Maryland, on a recent Saturday was charged with watching one shy but athletic boy. When he jumped on a Big Wheel bicycle and zigzagged down the halls of the university’s North Gym, she chased after him, telling him to slow down. When he hopped onto a trampoline, she held a leash tied around his waist to prevent him from bouncing off and hurting himself or others.
A member of AmeriCorps, President Clinton’s national service program, Mitchell has pledged to dedicate 900 hours of volunteer service over the next three years, to programs such as the Children’s Care Clinic at the university.
“Money wasn’t an incentive because it’s not like it’s going into my pocket,” said Mitchell, a full-time student, of the educational stipend AmeriCorps provides. “I joined AmeriCorps because it would give me the opportunity to explore my major, and I needed the experience.”
But this year’s projects may be her last as an AmeriCorps member.
The Senate voted 55-45 on Sept. 27 to slash the program’s funds, from $470 million this year to $6 million in fiscal ’96. That would leave only enough money to phase out programs.
The House voted this summer to approve the same cut, contained in a larger funding bill for veterans’ affairs and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Because of differences in other parts of the bill, it is awaiting a vote in a House-Senate conference committee.
The votes have set the stage for a confrontation with Clinton. Alice Rivlin, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said the president “will insist that Congress restore funds for this vital program” before he signs the bill.
Clinton had requested more than $800 million for AmeriCorps for fiscal ’96, to increase the number of volunteers from 20,000 to about 40,000 by 1997.
He has lauded the program for helping communities to help themselves and for allowing thousands of young people to attend college.
Much of the congressional debate stemmed from the cost of the program, which some critics say is higher than anticipated.
Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., called AmeriCorps “welfare for the well-to-do.” He said it is a “boondoggle for kids trying to find themselves.”
A recent report from the General Accounting Office showed that each AmeriCorps volunteer costs more than $26,000. Full-time volunteers are given a $4,725 educational award for 1,700 hours of service and about $7,640 for a living allowance. Health insurance and child care are provided for those who need it.
Part-time students are given half the educational award for completing 900 hours.
About $17,000 of each student’s costs comes from an independent federal agency, the Corporation for National and Community Service. The remaining funds are provided by federal, state and local government, with about $1,800 coming from private sources.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., tried last month to save the program by proposing an amendment that would restore $425 million to the budget. “National service is a solid investment in communities and in the future of our next generation,” she said. “This is not another handout.”
Her amendment was defeated, 47-52.
Both she and Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., voted against slashing the AmeriCorps budget.
Mitchell, 20, said abolishing the program would not only mean losing her stipend, but valuable experience as well.
She is serving in M Start, a consortium of about 70 Americorps students from the University of Maryland, Bowie State University and Anne Arundel Community College. They work with first-generation and at-risk students in Prince George’s County.
AmeriCorps members can select service projects from more than 350 programs in 1,000 communities across the nation.
Some have built homes with Habitat for Humanity, a program started by former President Carter to provide shelter for low- income families and victims of natural disasters. Some taught in inner-city schools and served in community-based health and education outreach programs.
Some even fought forest fires in Idaho last year.
Mitchell said the students and the communities both benefit.
“Giving that student an educational award will help that student go to college. What is wrong with that?” she asked.
“If we’re going to make the world a better place, we need to start at home, in the community,” she said. -30-