Lexington's Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning almost found itself with a lot less help this summer.
Earlier this year, the organization learned that its government-sponsored summer AmeriCorps VISTA helpers wouldn't be coming because the federal stimulus package dictated that the funding could be used only for full-year workers.
The Carnegie Center coordinates the group, which fans out and helps it and other area non-profits like Central Kentucky Radio Eye and the Family Care Center with goals like raising money and recruiting volunteers. The federal mandate nearly left Lexington's literacy education efforts with a major summertime void.
That is until the center and others banded together and found board members and others willing to donate money to keep the program alive.
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But the struggle is not over. The Carnegie Center will receive five fewer full-year VISTA volunteers in the coming year.
The Carnegie Center began receiving the AmeriCorps VISTA summer volunteers a few years ago for its drive to erase poverty by improving literacy.
They're not technically volunteers because they are paid a small living stipend, less than minimum wage, for the hours they work, as well as an award they can use to further their education. Full-year volunteers receive larger stipends and educational awards.
They do mainly what is called indirect service like writing grants and not as much, say, hands-on tutoring.
"To be fair, we were all forewarned that VISTA isn't forever," said Carnegie Center Executive Director Jan Isenhour of the summer group. "We've actually had VISTA members longer than we thought."
And the end became reality earlier this year. The center had been given oral approval for 12 summer workers until the federal funding edict came through, said Laura Whitaker, VISTA project supervisor at the center.
Hoping for funding, the state program leaders said they had gone ahead and asked organizations like Carnegie to solicit applicants, so there would be a pool if the money was approved.
"After the recovery bill went through ... to everybody's disappointment, there were no (summer) slots," said Betsy Wells, the state director for the Corporation for National and Community Service. A quasi-federal agency, the CNCS organizes and administers AmeriCorps VISTA.
The stimulus bill made everything "a different animal," said Paul Davis, acting director of AmeriCorps VISTA in Washington, D.C.
"The thought was they would have a much more lasting impact than a summer position," Davis said, noting, though, that the summer program allows for much greater flexibility.
The news came as a disappointment to Wells.
"Apparently people were not well-educated on the value of that type of programming," she said. "I see the summer experience as a nice bridge. ... They get a taste for it in the summer, and it translates to full-year AmeriCorps VISTA projects."
And while the donor-provided funding will continue the summer program locally, it won't be a full match for what volunteers would normally receive.
Whitaker said the funding will work out to be more money per hour because the volunteers will work fewer hours, but there won't be an educational award.
But the new plan does offer more flexibility for the volunteers. VISTA rules prohibit volunteers from taking other employment or summer higher education classes. That won't be the case now.
One of the volunteers, Rebecca Noble, recently graduated from the University of Kentucky and is taking a class this summer to prepare for graduate studies.
"I think I'm very lucky that they've been able to accommodate me and keep the position," said Noble, whose sister was a full-year AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer for several years after college.
As for the full year, the Carnegie Center and the other area non-profits with which it shares volunteers, will be down to 15 workers from 20 in years past.
"As we develop new projects and sponsors, we have to rotate existing projects off," Wells said. "After five years, we really start cutting them down."
And the numbers could dwindle further. Five of the 15 full-year workers are being funded through the one-time stimulus package, Wells said.
The government money could be appropriated again, so the number might stay at 15, but "it's no crystal ball," Wells said.
"We just have too many projects going on," Wells said. "We have concept papers stacked up here that we can't even work on."
Meanwhile, the Carnegie Center and others will cope by reducing the number of volunteers at each location by one, though any site in Lexington that had just one volunteer until now will continue to have that one.
"Hopefully, it won't have a major negative effect on the organization," Whitaker said.