Three Cheers for the Volunteers

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

As for the anti-crime university, its first two workshops are scheduled to commence this week at just two sites -- with a hoped-for turnout of 30 at each site; course topics include . . . cooking tips. ( Still, Neighborhood Partnership program director Sabrina Baker-Bouie insists, "We're on our way to being successful." Baker-Bouie acknowledges disappointment that AmeriCorps Dade's funding will not be renewed, but she protests that "the federal government wanted more physical, tangible things to be done. But we weren't set up to do that. You can't reach out and touch relationships [we've formed]." (Current and former volunteers, however, contend that the Overtown program generally did a poor job of involving residents in its efforts.)

One reason the Overtown program has accomplished relatively little in nine months is that, all too often, some members of the AmeriCorps team either left work early or simply didn't show up at their scheduled work sites, according to current and former volunteers. (United Way administrators themselves privately admit that Overtown has been a troubled project.) "Workers came any time they wanted and left any time they wanted," recalls Charles Rhodes. According to Rhodes and a few current workers, volunteers faked time sheets to cover up their absences. Rhodes claims that his efforts to enforce discipline in such instances were thwarted by administrators' concerns that he might prompt an exodus of workers; United Way officials won't discuss the charges because of Rhodes's pending EEOC complaint.

Volunteers are generally asked to work from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., but one AmeriCorps member says, "People would come in and leave two hours later, and nobody knew where they were. We just wrote down our own hours; there were no time clocks." Program director Baker-Bouie insists absenteeism "wasn't much of a problem."

Government evaluators -- and even United Way administrators -- disagree, noting that absenteeism has been a widespread problem. "Keeping members accountable was the number-one issue in most areas," admits Emme Pedinielli of United Way. But a federal AmeriCorps evaluator back in May found yet another kind of accountability problem -- at United Way of Dade headquarters. In a letter to Pedinielli, program officer Chris Gallagher wrote, "If you do not know what is going on in the neighborhoods, there is no way you will be able to improve program quality over the long term or address issues which need immediate attention."

The AmeriCorps effort at the Scott and Carver public housing projects in Liberty City also stalled for months in implementing its principal objectives: the establishment of a parents' safety patrol and crime watch, and educational programs to decrease student truancy. Later revisions of those objectives added a youth crime watch unit and a tutoring program for at least 30 elementary school students.

Jude Charles, age 23, and other AmeriCorps volunteers cite poor relations between the field coordinator and the volunteers as a key cause for the delay, along with resident apathy. As a result, he says, "Team members got tired and started slacking off." But since July, a new field coordinator, the Rev. Keith Akins, has already organized more than fifteen block captains for the adult crime watch A which is now being actively promoted by the tenant council and building management, he says A and by mid-August he had established the youth crime watch with nearly twenty members drawn from both housing projects.

Vigorous leadership such as that provided by Reverend Akins, combined with movitated team members and a supportive local agency, can indeed make an impact. For example, the Greater Miami Service Corps, which this year created an AmeriCorps component under the auspices of United Way, has been so effective that next year it will receive its own funding directly from Washington. The Coconut Grove AmeriCorps program is another example of success achieved despite weak oversight by United Way.

Located in the Family and Youth Intervention Center on Grand Avenue, the Coconut Grove program's volunteers have performed extensive clean-up work at vacant lots, tutored and lectured relatively often, installed dead-bolt locks and trimmed shrubbery at approximately twenty homes, and helped launch a youth crime-watch group involving fifteen children. (But even the energetic Coconut Grove AmeriCorps team failed to achieve its original stated objective of developing a 24-hour police mini-station, blaming the city's financial woes and bureaucratic morass. The field coordinator, 23-year-old Emily Hackmann, a University of Miami graduate, joined the program because she "always wanted to give something positive to Coconut Grove." She plans to use her tuition voucher to help finance her master's degree in school guidance counseling. "I love to help someone and watch the smile on her face when she feels safer," she says.

Hackmann may epitomize the AmeriCorps ideal, but other members weren't nearly so altruistic. By mid-July, the 60 original AmeriCorps members had dwindled to 44. Eleven of them were dismissed for reasons such as intoxication, stealing, incompetence, and huge deficiencies in work hours, according to United Way's senior vice president for public relations, Tamara Klingler. (On the other hand, some of those fired said they were victims of racism and retaliation for speaking out about the program's flaws.)

But it's clear that in too many instances, the absenteeism and other problems that have plagued the Dade program were caused in part by "people who weren't committed," as Florida Commission executive director Chris Gilmore notes. Instead of the fresh-faced college students originally envisioned by the national program, here in Dade, "we tried hard to recruit from the community, but we went overboard," Gilmore says, hiring too many AmeriCorps members with poor educational backgrounds and limited experience in community service. Instead, he admits ruefully, some workers "seemed to be there just to get a job, and this isn't a jobs program." He recalls asking one AmeriCorps volunteer why he enrolled, and he was bluntly told, "I needed a job."

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