Three Cheers for the Volunteers

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

Gilmore says he responded, "Why don't you go to McDonald's? You'll get more pay and there's a better chance for advancement."

Recruiting standards fell even lower at a residential rehabilitation center in Cutler Ridge known as the Interfaith Coalition for the Andrew Recovery Effort (ICARE). There the AmeriCorps anti-crime effort enrolled youths as young as sixteen, most of whom had juvenile criminal records. Aside from the fact that AmeriCorps volunteers in Florida must be at least seventeen years old, the ICARE program itself only tenuously fits into United Way's goal of improving public safety.

The specific objective ICARE sought to accomplish was the renovation of twenty hurricane-damaged homes, which presumably would increase neighborhood safety by making them less susceptible to burglary. But in addition, the program aimed to have its participants take courses in construction, prepare for their high school equivalence exams, and master the rigors of a live-in juvenile rehabilitation institution. The anti-crime justification? It gave them discipline and kept them off the streets.

Some staffers and AmeriCorps team members who have worked there question whether ICARE's effort to reform troubled youths in a highly regimented and restrictive environment is consistent with the volunteer spirit of AmeriCorps. "It was like a prison camp," says Mike Taylor, a former field coordinator at the isolated compound at SW 87th Avenue and 220th Street. Taylor, who has filed a racial discrimination complaint against United Way and ICARE, also claims he was fired in retaliation for refusing to falsify the birth dates of five underage AmeriCorps members on their identification forms.

The Jamaican-born Taylor contends that ICARE's fledgling AmeriCorps project needed as many members as possible to be viable, hence the order from a superior that he alter application forms to make the volunteers appear one year older than they were. "I wasn't going to break the law for them," Taylor says of his defiance. After a little more than a month on the job with AmeriCorps, he was fired.

Officials from ICARE and the United Way will not discuss the allegations because of Taylor's pending complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but his charges were given added credence following an inspection by a state program evaluator in late July. Apparently someone did in fact alter the dates of birth. In his report, the evaluator wrote, "After this visit it became a concern that the member enrollment forms may have been falsified with incorrect dates of birth for five [AmeriCorps] members. It was determined that the dates of birth for five individuals were off by exactly one year. Five members were/are only sixteen years old."

By July, all the frustrations with United Way's AmeriCorps Dade program had come to a boil. Officials from the Corporation for National Service notified Florida's Chris Gilmore that they had made a preliminary decision to reject United Way's request for renewal of funding for 1996. The national office didn't seem to buy United Way's claim that the Dade program had "already established tangible assets related to public safety." One reason, according to Florida Commission staffers, was that even on paper the results weren't particularly impressive. Accomplishments included such trivialities as "organized the office space that was donated to them by the East Little Havana CDC" -- noted under the headline "Getting Things Done."

In contrast, the notice from AmeriCorps' national funding headquarters sharply attacked the program's "severe lack of centralized oversight, quality leadership in the neighborhoods, and good tools for evaluation and continuous improvement." The analysis went on to describe ICARE's affiliation with the program as "irrational," and more generally asserted that "the actual activities of AmeriCorps members remain unclear.... Occasional beautification days must not substitute for direct service...on a day-to-day basis. Good programmatic decision making has been lacking."

United Way officials have smooth, reasonable-sounding explanations for the criticisms and accusations leveled against their program. Although they won't respond publicly to specific allegations pending before the EEOC or likely to end up in court, they say privately that the charges of racism and retaliation come from individuals who either didn't perform their jobs properly or had severe attitude problems that made them difficult to work with. In addition, they contend that although no white supervisors or volunteers have been fired, the dismissal pattern fairly reflects the ethnic makeup of the program, in which only 8 of the 63 employees who began with the program in January were white.

As United Way's Emme Pedinielli and Tamara Klingler see it, all the various difficulties are due to the structure of the program, weaknesses in the neighborhood nonprofit agencies, staffing problems, inadequate guidance from state officials -- everything, in fact, except mismanagement by United Way of Dade. "The program was not designed as well as it could be; it was cumbersome," Klingler asserts, pointing to a complicated layering of individual local agencies under the general direction of United Way. Regarding the lack of concrete action in many areas, she asserts, "We never went into this to be the police of those agencies. It was the [local] lead agency that had the responsibility in each neighborhood." Pedinielli backpedals even further: "We were only the fiscal agent," she says of United Way's role.

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