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Md. nonprofits waiting for cuts to AmeriCorps volunteers

When officials in Washington evaluate the consequences of the sequester, Tiara Bland wants them to consider the sixth-grade girls at Mother Seton Academy.

Bland, a 22-year-old AmeriCorps member at the Baltimore academy for low-income children, said the decision by government leaders to impose across-the-board spending cuts will shortchange the urban youths who turn to her for advice on math problems and life.

Bland, who aspires to be a school psychologist, is one of 17 AmeriCorps members performing education and literacy work in Baltimore for the Notre Dame Mission Volunteers.

The Notre Dame Mission Volunteers, an international organization based in Baltimore, will learn by June whether it will lose funding for any of those slots.

"It's very unfortunate that they made the budget cuts," said Bland, a graduate of Trinity Washington University. "Volunteers really make a difference."

The nation's 75,000 AmeriCorps members provide millions of hours of service each year to public agencies and nonprofits — cleaning up disaster sites, helping disadvantaged youth improve their academic performance, working with veterans and performing other jobs.

The members earn modest living stipends and money to help pay college costs in exchange for a year of service.

With the sequester now in effect, 3,400 of those positions are expected to be cut.

The Corporation for National and Community Service, which runs AmeriCorps, is evaluating applications from organizations to determine where to place members in the future, spokeswoman Samantha Jo Warfield said.

"We haven't made those decisions yet," Warfield said. Partner organizations, which in many cases provide matching funds to help pay members' stipends, "are having to prepare for any number of scenarios. It's definitely a challenge for the national service community as a whole."

Warfield said the sequester will also mean a cut of 600 members from the 8,000-member AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America. There are more than 50 VISTA members in Maryland. In 2012, VISTA generated more than $170 million in cash and donations for nonprofit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and the American Red Cross.

Senior Companions, another service program, will be available to 1,650 fewer older Americans. The companions help the elderly continue to live independently by preparing meals, chauffeuring them to medical appointments and filling in for family caregivers.

More than 9,000 children are expected to lose their Foster Grandparents, who receive small stipends to work with children in schools, community centers and juvenile justice facilities.

"National service is working at all levels in the country; it's in every state," Warfield said. "Americans may not be aware that the organizations and individuals providing service … [but] they are doing work that affects Americans at every point of their lives."

Warfield said the number of service positions to be eliminated in Maryland won't be available until after the Corporation for National and Community Service completes its evaluation of funding requests later this year.

Principal Laura Peterson Minakowski of Mother Seton Academy said the two AmeriCorps members stationed at the school on Greenmount Avenue in Baltimore help the teachers and staff carry out the mission.

Teachers are working at least 50 hours a week, Minakowski said, and budget constraints preclude more hiring. The school is funded primarily by donations.

"AmeriCorps members are engaged in the spirit of service," Minakowski said. Their work "expands the capacity for schools and nonprofits to serve those in need."

Notre Dame Mission Volunteers works with about 400 AmeriCorps members in 23 U.S. cities. Since its founding, spokeswoman Natalie Brown said, the organization has served more than 500,000 individuals.

"To invest in the community is to make a difference," Brown said.

Bland and the school's second AmeriCorps member, Kevin Ruskin, each earn $12,000 for 1,700 hours of work, or about $7 an hour.

Bland teaches physical education, helps out the after school program and serves as a classroom assistant for sixth-grade girls.

Ruskin, 30, of the Edmondson Village neighborhood in Baltimore, is a gym teacher, assistant basketball coach and recruitment assistant.

Ruskin, who is studying business administration at the University of Phoenix, said working at Mother Seton has been "a joy."

"Having a service like this is vital, especially when you have people willing to commit to a year of service," Ruskin said. "Our leaders need to realize our future is at stake with the decisions they make."

ywenger@baltsun.com

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