Three Cheers for the Volunteers

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

But once again, another putative accomplishment made it into United Way's official report to the Florida Commission on Community Service. "The [basketball] league began playing on Saturday, March 11 with fifteen players and two coaches," the report stated. But as AmeriCorps volunteer Ines Padilla notes, the major resident recruitment meeting didn't happen until a few days later, and she didn't even type up a letter to a sporting goods store requesting league sponsorship until March 10. "There's no way a basketball league was ready on March 11," she says. "It's beyond exaggeration; it's a lie." (Emme Pedinielli, United Way's AmeriCorps project director, says she got her information about the league from field coordinators who have since left the program.)

Juan Diaz, meanwhile, remains embittered about his experience and AmeriCorps's promises. "It's like offering a pastry to a kid and when he shows up telling him there's no pastry," he says. Beside losing a basketball league, the AmeriCorps program also lost the contributions of the 35-year-old Diaz, just the sort of natural community leader the project originally vowed to discover and encourage.

Other promised contributions to crime prevention in East Little Havana never materialized, such as the renovation of part of the Teatro Marti building. Unfortunately, according to Marta Carbonell and other AmeriCorps observers, the program encountered a host of problems that stalled those plans, including the organization's low visibility and difficulty recruiting Hispanic workers from the neighborhood. "We wanted to hire leadership that would remain in the neighborhood, and that didn't happen," says Carbonell.

Poor management played a role, too, according to one volunteer. "Our goals weren't realistic and everything was too loose," she recalls. "We weren't on any kind of time frame to reach our objectives."

After a while, United Way lowered its sights, which led to "revised objectives" being sent to the Florida Commission in March for East Little Havana, Overtown, and most other AmeriCorps projects. "We realized after being there for a few months that we had to reflect the reality of those communities," says Pedinielli. Those new objectives, however, were never approved by the Florida Commission as required, so United Way was in essence pursuing a new direction without the authorization of any funding agency. As an August evaluation report by the Florida Commission noted, "Prior written approval is required before [a] program may change objectives."

But in most cases, even those new objectives appear unlikely to be fulfilled. In East Little Havana, for example, there's been some graffiti removal, youth workshops, and tutoring, but the 50-member Citizens on Patrol program has yet to begin, and the promised ten beautification projects still haven't been completed, "We haven't reached the goal of having the parents involved," one volunteer admits. And once AmeriCorps Dade folds up shop at the end of the year, how lasting will its impact really be?

The AmeriCorps project in Overtown has been run by the Overtown Neighborhood Partnership, whose original objectives were to establish something called the Overtown Residents University, to improve young people's perceptions of the police, and to "increase the ability of police to make arrests and respond to crime." The university, a nontraditional learning center with multiple locations, would concentrate on teaching crime-prevention techniques to area residents and training six community leaders who would then instruct others. To change youths' attitudes toward police, the Neighborhood Partnership planned to have its seven-member AmeriCorps team instigate unspecified beautification projects and develop community theater productions involving youngsters and police officers -- up to 300 elementary school students and at least 50 police officers were supposed to take part. Police response to crime was to be enhanced by the establishment of a permanent volunteer safety patrol for Overtown's neighborhoods.

The revised but unapproved objectives later submitted by United Way dropped the theater concept, specified that six beautification projects would be undertaken, and proposed to tutor and mentor 50 young people from elementary through high school. The Overtown Residents University, however, remained the centerpiece. Fifteen volunteer residents would be recruited as instructors to run future courses, and precisely 360 "certificates" would be awarded to those who successfully completed the workshops.

So far the Overtown team has completed one beautification project (landscaping a vacant lot on Third Avenue near I-95) and is halfway through another on Fourteenth Street. A garbage pickup took place at two parks back in January, and two anti-crime workshops were held at an area middle school.

That may not seem like much after nine months, but it hasn't stopped United Way from portraying the Overtown effort as favorably as possible. In an April report, for example, United Way highlighted Overtown's main "success story" -- a "self-defense workshop for 80 women and children." But according to current and former AmeriCorps members, including the Overtown field coordinator at that time, Charles Rhodes, no more than fifteen children and a few adult residents attended the workshop. (Rhodes has named United Way in a racial discrimination complaint filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.)

United Way also claimed that AmeriCorps provided tutoring to the Booker T. Washington Middle School, but that's disputed by then-assistant principal Charles Hankerson, who says the volunteers merely helped to organize a one-day neighborhood cleanup in which some students participated.

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