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AmeriCorps in Missouri

November 27, 1995
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Marilyn Hoffman sits cross-legged on the floor helping 7-year-old James Powell count bright orange cubes for his arithmetic assignment. With the help of the blocks and Hoffman's gentle encouragement, he figures out the answer to 47 + 63.

As coordinator of the Jefferson City AmeriCorps program, Hoffman oversees a tutoring project that helps children in low-income areas.

AmeriCorps is the centerpiece of President Bill Clinton's national service program that began last year. He promoted the idea of a "domestic Peace Corps" during his 1992 campaign, and it is now one of his most cherished initiatives.

However, to the President's dismay, AmeriCorps is also a prime target of the Republican Congress, who have voted to kill the program.

The Jefferson City tutoring project and a 12-county environmental work group are among the 16 AmeriCorps programs in Missouri.

In exchange for their contributions, AmeriCorps "volunteers" are paid a living allowance, equal to minimum wage, and are given an education voucher of $4,725 if they fulfill a one-year obligation of 900 hours.

Tutoring children

In Jefferson City, AmeriCorps, in conjunction with Lincoln University, has set up two after-school centers to tutor children in low-income neighborhoods.

The centers, located at 1012 Myrtle St. and 512 E. Elm, have seen an enormous response. After one month, tutors are helping an average of 25 kids per night.

On a typical afternoon on Myrtle Street, the doors open at 4:00 and by 4:30 all of the metal folding chairs are full and children find places on the orange carpet to study.

As 15-year-old Alisha Richardson tackles questions on the Alamo, AmeriCorps member Spencer Allen, a Lincoln senior, keeps a close eye on her progress. Together they consult her history book, which she's covered with a Levis 501 ad.

Nearby, Michael Davis, 8, is sounding out the word 'eating' in a book on dinosaurs. Cathy Sneaders, an AmeriCorps participant, lends support.

"Remember the rule," Sneaders said. "When two vowels go together, the first vowel does the talking." After a little struggling, he gets the word.

At another table, Ayesha Jones, 11, shares a story she wrote entitled "The Girl on the Moon." It's about a girl and her friends who sell enough 25-cent cups of lemonade to buy a trip to the moon.

A sign on the wall reads, "You have the right to: a safe environment; a drug-free environment; express your opinion; respect others; receive respect; learn; and recommend change."

AmeriCorps members deftly move from one child to the next, calling them by name, checking on their work, and keeping voices down.

To get the program up and running, Hoffman worked with AmeriCorps officials, the state Education Department, the local Public Housing Authority and local schools.

"We saw a real need in our community to devote time to teaching children," she said. "Our goal is to give each child a lot of one-on-one, something that is often impossible in the schools."

Ginia Arney is a full-time education major at Lincoln University and an AmeriCorps member. She devotes 20 hours a week at the Myrtle Street tutoring center.

"The response has been more than we ever expected," she said. "We have only been open a few weeks, but already I feel we are reaching these kids. They know this is a safe, fun place with nice people who care about them."

The centers are open from 4 to 8 every weeknight, and many of the children stay for the full four hours. But AmeriCorps participants insist the program is not free babysitting.

"The children are here because they want to learn," Arney said. "We are not here to discipline anyone and we don't allow fighting or cussing. They understand they need to follow our guidelines, or go home."

While the center is in its infancy, there have been very few problems, Arney said.

AmeriCorps members keep files on each child who comes into the center. They update the files on a daily basis, tracking the learning activities of every child. Such paperwork is time consuming and seems fitting for a federal program, but Arney said she doesn't mind.

"It helps us remember what each child has done and ensures we are making progress," she said.

Arney, who hopes to teach elementary school when she graduates from Lincoln, said she's concerned about the academic progress of many of the children she's tutored.

"It breaks my heart," she said. "While many have inadequate math skills, I found that their reading ability is especially poor. We've got nine-year-olds who can't write their name."

But Allen says he's seen improvements in the children he tutors.

"We see improvement, but we also see an excitement in learning," he said. "My goal is to turn them on to the stuff."

Because of the popularity of the centers, Hoffman hopes to open a third center at Jefferson City High School in the next few months.

Identifying water quality risks

Elsewhere in Missouri, AmeriCorps members have teamed up with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and The University of Missouri Extension Service to work with rural residents to assess water quality risks.

"The thrust of our project is to help people look at water pollution risks and improve water quality on their farmsteads," said Ross Braun, project coordinator. "Members will look at such things as how oil, fertilizer and pesticides are stored, the proximity of the septic system to working wells and whether abandoned wells have been capped."

Using a farmstead assessment program developed by NRSC and University Extension called Farm-A-Syst, AmeriCorps workers use a series of worksheets to evaluate water conditions. Members conduct one-on-one farmstead surveys with rural residents and discuss their findings.

"Water quality affects everyone," said David Myers, an AmeriCorps participant. "Minimizing risks is good for the family's safety and that of the community."

Organizers stressed that assessments are voluntary and confidential.

"We are not part of the Department of Natural Resources," said David Myers. "In no way will the information be used against anyone."

"Our goal is to provide information and education," adds Bob Broz, who designed Farm-A-Syst. "Participants will remain anonymous and individual information will be kept in strict confidence."

AmeriCorps members will work out of Extension Service offices in Columbia, Jefferson City, Fulton, Boonville and Fayette, and will serve 12 mid-Missouri counties. Anyone interested in a farmstead water quality assessment should contact their closest Extension Service office, Broz said.

"This is a tremendous opportunity for NRCS and the University Extension Service to offer our services through AmeriCorps," Broz said. "In addition to working individually with residents, members are available to give presentations about water quality risks."

All five AmeriCorps members involved in the project have some type of agricultural background. In addition, they have completed training sessions on the Farm-A-Syst program.


The educational and environmental programs in place in Missouri are representative of the 400-plus AmeriCorps initiatives nationwide. However, despite worthy intentions, this year may be the AmeriCorps' last.

Republicans in Congress have put AmeriCorps on their balanced-budget chopping block. Both the House and Senate voted to slash funding from $470 million to $6 million, leaving only enough money to phase out the program permanently.

Critics say the program is top-heavy with bureaucrats, that it costs too much per person and that it goes against the spirit of volunteerism by paying people to perform good deeds.

Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft called AmeriCorps "welfare for the well-to-do" and said it is a "boondoggle for kids trying to find themselves."

Clinton asked for more than $800 million for AmeriCorps, hoping to double the number of participants in the program from 20,000 to 40,000 by 1997. He has threatened to veto any budget bill that would kill AmeriCorps.

Much of the debate stems from the cost of the program. The General Accounting Office found the average AmeriCorps participant is supported by more than $25,000 in federal, state and private contributions.

Marilyn Hoffman said she and Jefferson City AmeriCorps members are not going to worry about the proposed budget cuts.

"We've set out to do something important and we hope we can continue," she said. "However, if we can only do it a year, then we'll do it a year."

Myers, who plans to use his education voucher to get a graduate degree in human resources management, hopes others will have the same opportunity.

"AmeriCorps gives people a way to go to school, the will to go and a way to do it," he said. "Without the program, it would be harder. Now I don't have to take out loans, my parents don't have to help and it gives me ownership in my degree."