Three Cheers for the Volunteers

And one big raspberry for the supervisors who allowed Dade's AmeriCorps to go down the tubes

One year ago this week about 200 people gathered in the plaza at Miami-Dade Community College's downtown campus to watch President Clinton launch his AmeriCorps national service program. The president was appearing on a closed-circuit television broadcast from the White House, where he delivered a stirring speech explaining his vision of recruiting an army of young volunteers to serve their communities for one year in exchange for a small stipend and a $4725 voucher to help pay college tuition or student loans. "This year 20,000 Americans mark the beginning of a journey that will change their lives forever," Clinton intoned. "It will also change the life of this nation for many seasons to come. What we do today and what we will do in the days and years ahead will give new life to the values that bind us as Americans. You, the people of AmeriCorps, will be America's next generation of heroes."

Then the president led scores of people in Miami and around the nation in an AmeriCorps membership pledge: "I will get things done for America. To make our people smarter and healthier. . . . Faced with adversity, I will persevere. . . . I am an AmeriCorps member, and I am going to get things done."

"And I am going to get things done!" the eager Miami volunteers shouted back.

Twelve months after that rousing call to public service, the response in Dade County has been a failure of such proportions that federal officials have shut off the financial spigot -- the local program will not be funded next year. And while the experiment known as AmeriCorps Dade did produce some success stories, the neighborhoods most in need of the volunteer effort instead have suffered only unkept promises and bureaucratic bungling.

Directed by United Way of Dade County, the AmeriCorps project was broadly designed to improve public safety in specific areas of the county by reducing "disorder and decline" through the implementation of crime-watch programs, neighborhood patrols, crime-prevention workshops, after-school youth activities, beautification projects, and more. The targeted communities included South Dade, west Coconut Grove (also known as the Black Grove), East Little Havana, Overtown, and the Scott and Carver housing projects in Liberty City.

The AmeriCorps teams, which began work in January, were to be directly supervised by seven different nonprofit organizations already in operation. Between the 60 mostly young field coordinators and volunteers (the former earn about $16,000 and a tuition voucher only after a year of service; the latter earn a monthly stipend of $636 and the vouchers) and the costs of administration, the total budget for the Dade program for 1995 amounted to $1.4 million, of which nearly $800,000 would come from the federal government and the rest from funds raised by the nonprofit organizations involved. By all accounts, it was a very ambitious program. "This wasn't supposed to be just another group of professionals delivering a bunch of services," notes Jonathan Cloud, a consultant who helped prepare the original grant proposal. "We were going to leave behind something of ongoing, permanent value to the community."

But after inspecting the various Dade operations and reviewing United Way reports on AmeriCorps' progress, the agency that funds 350 AmeriCorps programs nationwide has decided against providing more money for 1996 because of a "lack of results," among other reasons. State and federal evaluators had found the Dade program marred by poor leadership, inadequate oversight, worker absenteeism, and a paucity of direct services. "The bottom line was that the program wasn't getting things done," says Bruce Cline, a project manager with the funding agency, the Corporation for National Service in Washington, D.C.

And as if an official failing grade weren't bad enough, some participants say that portions of the United Way's progress reports to state and federal officials were inaccurate at best, intentionally misleading at worst.

AmeriCorps Dade will continue to operate through the end of this calendar year, though without much incentive to improve performance or achieve its various objectives. Everyone involved, after all, knows that the program as it's now constituted will die on December 31. Two of the neighborhoods that will suffer most acutely are also two where AmeriCorps' failings have been most glaring: East Little Havana and Overtown.

In East Little Havana, the legacy of broken promises and inaction by AmeriCorps is particularly striking. Early in the year, AmeriCorps Dade set noble goals for the crime-ridden neighborhood composed largely of Hispanic immigrants. Based on preliminary surveys of residents by the six-member AmeriCorps team there, United Way of Dade stated that the East Little Havana project would "increase the capacity of residents to deal with neighborhood disorder" through such projects as renovating part of the run-down Teatro Marti building to serve as an all-purpose crime-prevention center, a headquarters for everything from crime-watch units to beautification projects. Equally important was its goal of providing after-school alternatives to at least 240 youngsters in hopes of reducing their gang involvement and cutting juvenile crime by two percent. Now, nine months later, none of those original goals have been realized.

On a Saturday afternoon last month, it became especially clear that AmeriCorps's dreams of reducing juvenile crime had not been met: Three-year-old Bernabe Ramirez was killed A and his aunt injured A in a gang-related shooting at East Little Havana's Riverside Park. While no one expected AmeriCorps to solve a crime problem rooted in an impoverished community without much hope or opportunity for its young people, there was, in the beginning, an idealistic vision that AmeriCorps could be a catalyst for positive change. Ironically, the starting point for this campaign was supposed to be Riverside Park, located at SW Third Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues.

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