Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

April 1, 2009


Host: Ted Simons

Serve America Act


  • The leader of a local non-profit that connects volunteers with community service opportunities talks about the “Serve America Act," a major expansion of national community service programs recently approved by Congress, and how it will impact Arizona.
    www.AmeriCorps.org
    www.HandsOnPhoenix.org
    www.aMissionofMercy.org
Guests:
  • Rhonda Oliver - President and C.E.O., HandsOn Greater Phoenix


View Transcript
Ted Simons:
Yesterday the U.S. house of representatives approved the "Edward Kennedy Serve America Act," sending the bill to the president, who has said he will sign it. The bill greatly expands national community service programs that get millions of people involved in efforts to improve their communities through volunteer service. More on the bill in a moment, but first, an example of how our declining economy is increasing the need for volunteers.

Catherine Amiot:
More and more people who have never sought reduced-cost or free medical services are now finding their way to our doors. I think it's the direct result of the economy, the loss of jobs.

David Majure:
Three days a week, Mission of Mercy takes its mobile medical clinic to different parts of the valley. On Wednesdays, it’s here at Shepherd of the Valley Church at 15th Avenue and Maryland.

Catherine Amiot:
We're stretched to the seams as far as being able to handle the increase in patient care.

Mission of Mercy Executive Director Catherine Amiot says patient visits at this location are up 41% compared to last year. And the clinic is simply not able to see every patient who shows up.

Catherine Amiot:
No, we're not. Last Wednesday I was here conducting a tour and before 9:00 we had turned away 32 people. For most of our patients, Mission of Mercy is their last hope. When we have to turn away patients, it's not just saying please come back next week. We're booked two months out. What we're saying we can't help and we're not sure where we can tell you to go.

David Majure:
A nonprofit organization, Mission of Mercy is funded entirely by private donations. It provides free primary medical care and prescriptions to people who are uninsured. Doctors and medical staff donate their time as do many other volunteers.

Catherine Amiot:
They're the heart and soul of mission of mercy. We could not be open for one minute of one day without our volunteers.

David Majure:
People like Ana Berlanga-Nabozny, a volunteer interpreter for the last five years.

Ana Berlanga-Nabozny:
I volunteer because I can.

David Majure:
She helps non-English speaking patients communicate with their caregivers. By doing so, she knows she’s helped save lives.

Ana Berlanga-Nabozny:
Many people may think they don't have much to give. Oh, but they do. They do. And the old cliché, you get so much back, you do get so much back. The best days for me and I think any volunteer will say the same, are the busiest days. If I can run or hop or skate from table to table, helping people, that's my best day.

David Majure:
It appears Ana has many good days ahead of her, because the Mission of Mercy clinic is busier than ever with no sign of slowing down.

Ted Simons:
Joining me to talk about the "Serve America Act" and how it will impact community service in Arizona is Rhonda Oliver. She's president and C.E.O. of HandsOn Greater Phoenix, a nonprofit organization that connects volunteers with other nonprofits where they're needed most. Good to have you on the program.

Rhonda Oliver:
Good to be here, thanks for having me.

Ted Simons:
What is the Serve America Act?

Rhonda Oliver:
It's really the biggest piece of service legislation that we've had since the Clinton administration, that established the AmeriCorps program but it came with bipartisan support that expands national service from its current 75,000 members to 250,000 service members. And they've established new corps within the realm of national service and so it's a pretty significant piece of legislation for the social service sector.

Ted Simons:
You talk about service members. These are volunteers, but they're paid volunteers, are compensated, correct?

Rhonda Oliver:
Well, we tend, those of us who operate in this sphere, tend not to call them volunteers. We call them members because we think it creates confusion around volunteers. Because that term means unpaid. And they receive a small living stipend. We make a distinction between the two.

Ted Simons:
In the community, how do you make a distinction between these folks and the neighbor who decides to volunteer at the hospital or library?

Rhonda Oliver:
I think it would be helpful to say what a member is. I think the easiest way to explain it, is that it's similar to the Peace Corps, in that these folks commit to a year of service. In most cases, it's full time. Not just dropping in on the weekend or a weekly or monthly basis. These people are committing to a year of service. But it's here locally, versus abroad like Peace Corps. We don't want to call them an employee. So they're not really a volunteer or an employee because they commit to a year of service, they serve as a greater resource to the organizations who use them.

Ted Simons:
In general, who are these people? What kind of experience do they bring and what kind of experience do they need?

Rhonda Oliver:
Well, it runs the gamut. You have to be 18 years of age to be a national service member. And there are many specialized corps, and there are some new ones developed in the legislation. But there are senior corps and corps that focus on recruiting boomers to serve. By and large, while it's a diverse group, a lot of them arecollege graduates or folks who have maybe two years or a few semesters and haven't decided what path they're taking and this seems like a great way to develop skills because they receive professional development while they serve, learn more about community needs, and receive that small living stipend.

Ted Simons:
And there are education stipends and a special deal going to retirees that sounds very interesting.

Rhonda Oliver:
It is. What's great about this legislation, they've expanded the educational award, and what used to be just under $4,800, that folks received, after a full year of service, they've expanded it to $5,300. That's if you do a full time term. But what's special about this legislation is for the seniors serving, there's a thousand dollar Ed award and they can transfer that Ed award to their child or grandchildren. Most of them don't have a need to use the award, but now that they have ability to pass it down, that's a great perk.

Ted Simons:
I believe the bill establishes September 11th as a special day in terms of service. Talk to us about that.

Rhonda Oliver:
So they're establishing it as a National day of service and how I see that happening is organizations like ours and all across the country and organizations involved in social service will organize around this day and it will be a real conduit for people to get involved and do something positive on a day that otherwise has a negative connotation. I think there will be a lot of rallying and you'll see a lot of organization around this day.

Ted Simons:
Can you talk about the impact to the economy? It's affecting everything. I would imagine the service community is getting hit in one way but finding opportunity in another.

Rhonda Oliver:
Yeah, there's a bit of a bright spot here with this legislation and what's going on with volunteerism. We've seen our rates at our organization go up 40% this quarter over the same quarter last year. People are 40% more interested in coming out to serve.

Ted Simons:
Why do you think that is?

Rhonda Oliver:
I think two things. Obama's call to service and the emphasis on service and the momentum around legislation like this and the high unemployment rate. People tell us they don't want to sit at home. They want to do something meaningful with this time. They want to give back.

Ted Simons:
HandsOn Greater Phoenix, your organization: what do you do?

Rhonda Oliver:
We're the hub in greater Phoenix for people who want to get involved. We have about 60 projects every month that are led by a trained project leader. We've got literacy programming, we’ve got AmeriCorps programming. We really see ourselves as the hub in this community to connect people to service.

Ted Simons:
And you’ve mentioned AmeriCorps a couple of times. For those who aren't familiar, what is that?

Rhonda Oliver:
AmeriCorps is the shorthand for national service. There are many different varieties of the AmeriCorps program. When you hear national service, it's synonymous with AmeriCorps.

Ted Simons:
So basically, Serve America act expands AmeriCorps and other service members or mostly AmeriCorps?

Rhonda Oliver:
AmeriCorps. Yes.

Ted Simons:
Okay, someone watching right now says, I would love to be a member of AmeriCorps. Maybe take advantage of the stipends or I just want to volunteer. Sometimes there's an intimidation factor as far as getting into that particular pool. What do they do? Where do they go?

Rhonda Oliver:
First, if you're interested in AmeriCorps, there's a national website where you can browse the different programs. And that's Americorps.org. If they want to learn about it, that's a great place to start. If you're a community volunteer in greater Phoenix, I would encourage people to visit our website, handsonphoenix.org. We try to break down the barriers. Don't require background checks. We've got 60 opportunities a month. Short term and long term and all sorts of issue areas. If you think about doing something with the homeless or animals or neighborhood revitalization -- whatever your issue is, we've got something for you.

Ted Simons:
Last question. Can there be a difficulty incorporating or just meshing between AmeriCorps, national service organizations and local community groups?

Rhonda Oliver:
No, I think what's exciting about this is what's going to happen with these -- the expansion of AmeriCorps, national service is going to bring more members to our valley and state. And what gets to happen, these folks have an opportunity to leverage community volunteers because they work in agencies for a period of time and they have the opportunity to build processes and infrastructure for more community members to get involved. So it's a win for volunteers, because there will be more opportunities, and it's a win for social service agencies because they have this additional resource and service members.

Ted Simons:
It's not necessarily a confusing influx of folks trying to figure out where things are.

Rhonda Oliver:
It will help create organization around that process and help people understand how to get involved in a better way.

Ted Simons:
The president has not signed this bill yet, correct?

Rhonda Oliver:
We're waiting for him to come back from over the pond so we anticipate his signature in short order.

Ted Simons:
Very good. Rhonda, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

Rhonda Oliver:
Thank you.

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