Three Cheers for the Volunteers
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.
These days, Juanita (not her real name), a Nicaraguan immigrant with three young children, looks at the near-empty park and says, no, she's never heard of AmeriCorps. Even with the increased police patrols following the child's murder, she notes, "I don't really feel safe. That could have been my son who was killed." She can't forget the shots she heard.
Back in February, six AmeriCorps members led a clean-up effort that lasted at least a week; it was meant to be the first step toward reclaiming the park from the gang members, drug users, and thugs who usually stake out the area near two small basketball courts.
According to current and former AmeriCorps members, the February removal of broken glass and garbage was supposed to be a high-visibility effort that they hoped would be followed by additional repairs provided by city and civic groups, the recruiting of more neighborhood volunteers, the establishment of a basketball league, and other initiatives designed to "empower the community" and reduce youth involvement in gangs. But apart from glass removal and the addition by the parks department of sand to a playground, little else was done.
In a newsletter published in February, United Way of Dade had announced, "Gang violence and drug abuse have ravaged much of the community." It was supposedly working with a local neighborhood agency, East Little Havana Community Development Corporation (CDC), to "rebuild" Riverside Park. But Ines Padilla, a former AmeriCorps member who claims she was dismissed because she was insistent in her attempts to alert administrators to an internal theft problem, says, "We never provided improvements [to the park], we never developed community volunteers, and we never offered young people an alternative to gang membership."
Marta Carbonell, the head of the CDC, blames "bureaucratic things" placed in their way by the city's parks department for the failures at Riverside Park. But Albert Ruder, director of the City of Miami parks and recreation department, says, "We welcomed [Americorps members] with open arms, but they didn't seem to follow through." Padilla and other volunteers familiar with the East Little Havana program say neither Carbonell nor the AmeriCorps supervisor at the time (there have been three in nine months) aggressively prodded the parks department to help with the rehabilitation project.
The program didn't inspire widespread resident involvement; only a handful of neighbors -- usually no more than two, Padilla says -- chipped in on the cleanup. "We should have made sure the community bought in [to the project] and the park service was on board before we went in," says Chris Gilmore, executive director of the Florida Governor's Commission on Community Service, which funneled the federal money to Dade's program.
Riverside Park does seem a bit safer today -- but only because of a stepped-up police presence in the wake of the Ramirez slaying. One neighbor, a fearful mother of three who did not want her name published, sits on her porch bordered by a black iron fence. Looking warily out at the park on a sunny September afternoon, she says bitterly, "If the police were doing then what they are doing now, that child would still be alive." Even now, she is still too worried about her children's safety to let them play at Riverside Park. Earlier in the month, before the shooting, she had complained that AmeriCorps hadn't followed through. This view is shared by Fernando Gonzales, vice president of Neighbors in Action, who says, "They can say they're doing a lot, but they're doing nothing."
Despite such criticism, the AmeriCorps Dade program reported proudly to government funders in April as part of its first 1995 report: "The East Little Havana team watched as residents began to use Riverside Park again for picnics, family outings, and sporting activities thanks to their clean-up efforts." Don't tell that to the fearful mother who lives across the street. She has a report of her own to offer: "We live under lock and key."
Equally discouraging to some East Little Havana residents was the failure to get a Riverside Park basketball league under way. They hoped it could provide a safe alternative for kids while reclaiming the Riverside basketball courts from petty criminals. Last March, Juan Diaz, a charismatic, extroverted former track star from Puerto Rico, volunteered to sign up neighborhood kids ages ten to fifteen to participate in a tournament. He got interested in AmeriCorps after being one of the few volunteers to actually help during the Riverside Park cleanup.
He signed up more than 40 youngsters, and now, sitting in his kitchen after a long day working as a roofer, he reminisces in Spanish with a controlled anger: "The kids were full of illusions about everything that was going to happen, but AmeriCorps didn't support us. They put it on hold and didn't pay attention." He blames the AmeriCorps field coordinator at the time for not obtaining the necessary permit from the city to run the league and for not offering any other help. "I wanted to use the league to get rid of the hoods," Diaz says with frustration.
"How can I go back and face all the people I talked to?" he adds. And when he's shown an unofficial United Way list of accomplishments for East Little Havana that includes a "basketball league with twenty players and one coach," he snaps bitterly, "They're charlatans!" (Cathy Knighton, the current East Little Havana field coordinator, claims the league played for a month and that it collapsed only because the coach -- presumably Diaz -- wouldn't submit to a city-mandated background check. Diaz says he filled out all required forms and no league games were played. (Parks director Ruder says his department did not issue any permit for a basketball league at Riverside Park.)
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.
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."
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.
Bruce Cline of the national AmeriCorps program doesn't think United Way of Dade should get off so lightly. "It's problematic that they're divorcing themselves from the poor performing sites that they have legal responsibility for," he says with some irritation. "Their responsibility extends to ensuring that results were achieved in the different program areas."
But in one key respect, the AmeriCorps Dade project is having the lasting impact its leaders originally hoped for -- although not quite in the way they envisioned. As just one of eleven AmeriCorps programs around the nation to be denied renewal, the program's failures have prompted a rethinking at the state and the federal levels about how AmeriCorps should operate. Inspired in part by the disappointing experience of AmeriCorps Dade, Bruce Cline says, "We're going to look out for [i.e., avoid] organizations that have a hands-off approach to actual activities." And Chris Gilmore of the Florida Commission has developed a laundry list of reforms based on AmeriCorps Dade's shortcomings. "We're going to make sure there's a strong implementation plan and a supervision structure that can follow up," he says, also blaming his own commission for encouraging the coalition of Dade County agencies that wanted to submit such an unwieldy AmeriCorps proposal in the first place.
Bureaucratic blame aside, perhaps the most pernicious fallout from the failures of AmeriCorps Dade will come in the form of reinforced cynicism and hopelessness among those the programs were supposed to help. As the Rev. Keith Akins, field coordinator at the Scott and Carver homes, points out, "People get tired of seeing programs come and go. They put their trust in them, and then they leave. And some people just get their pockets fat with grants.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.