Volunteers under fire

Dozens of programs and thousands of jobs across the country came under fire last month as Republicans in Washington, D.C., proposed zeroing out the budget for the Corporation for National and Community Service. One of the targeted programs is AmeriCorps, a national humanitarian nonprofit that employs roughly 9,000 members in Montana. Volunteers in the state have since rallied to underscore the importance of AmeriCorps' work, which ranges from elementary school tutoring to backcountry trail maintenance.

"Our programs don't just create life-long volunteers," says Eric Cardella, program manager for the Montana Campus Corps (MTCC), a statewide AmeriCorps effort sponsored by the Montana Campus Compact. "Students, by getting a taste of what some of the have-nots of society are dealing with...they are actually getting motivated to do more in their careers and their personal lives."

MTCC stands out as one of the largest pieces of Montana's AmeriCorps pie, with more than 700 volunteers from 19 college campuses working in 46 counties. Those volunteers prove invaluable resources for local nonprofits; Jen Euell of Missoula's YWCA credits the creation of the Girls Using Their Strengths empowerment program largely to the work of AmeriCorps personnel.

"They're the real reason we're able to grow programs here," Euell says.

And while the MTCC does boast an annual budget of $1.5 million, Cardella estimates only half of that comes from federal dollars. Given the passage of the Serve America Act in 2009—the first federal expansion of national service programs since 1993—Cardella finds the apparent assault on AmeriCorps difficult to understand.

"It's been resoundingly supported by both sides of the political spectrum," Cardella says. "So it's very surprising, a year and a half after the Serve America Act passed, to be talking about [AmeriCorps] going away."

Cardella points to the increasing need for community services as further evidence of the importance of volunteerism. MTCC already plans to amplify its presence in schools on Montana Indian reservations this year, and Cardella has no intention of yielding to doom-and-gloom discussions just yet.

"We're finding more and more college students are coming into two-year and four-year schools with the expectation that they're going to volunteer," Cardella says. "It's definitely part of this generation and their mindset."

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