VALPARAISO | The AmeriCorps program got its start 21 years ago and is now in its fourth year in Northwest Indiana, but its future is uncertain because of federal budget cuts.
"For us, it brings so much talent to the table in that people can bring the skills and interests they have or, if they want to establish some experience or learn new careers, it's been a wonderful program," said Sharon Kish, director of the United Way of Porter County.
The United Way has served as the sponsor for Northwest Indiana's AmeriCorps, and this year has a $389,000 grant to support the work of 40 people in a variety of positions in Lake, Porter, LaPorte and Starke counties. Described as the domestic version of the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps participants agree to give a year of their time to the program.
For that, they get a living stipend of $12,000, if they work at least 1,700 hours. At the end of the year they also get an education award of $5,700 they must use for tuition, books or to pay off student loans. Those older than 55 can give the education award to their children or grandchildren.
Among the duties they perform for schools and nonprofits are tutoring and mentoring, building affordable housing, teaching computer skills, cleaning parks and streams, managing after-school programs and recruiting volunteers.
In addition to sponsoring local residents, Kish said the United Way grant helped bring eight national teams to the area to build houses for the Lakeshore Area Regional Recovery of Indiana for people whose homes were damaged or destroyed by the floods in September 2008.
"We had 18 people here for five to six weeks at a time to help people," she said. "About 400 homes are still to be done of the 14,000 damaged, and they should be done by the end of the year with the help of Eli Lilly dollars."
AmeriCorps is paying for people to work in several local schools, with the Visiting Nurses Association, the Center for Workforce Innovation, Housing Opportunities, at United Way and others. Kish said her agency is recruiting people now for 14 part-time summer slots that pay $1,000 plus a $1,000 education award.
The service year started Aug. 15, 2010, and runs until Aug. 14, 2011, and Kish said accomplishments during the first six months of the current program included recruiting 490 volunteers, tutoring or mentoring 991 students and completing about 150 income tax returns.
The agency submitted its grant request for the next year, but, although the program was expanded last year under the Edward M. Kennedy National Service Act, Kish said she was waiting to see what impact the budget cuts will have.
Anyone interested in joining AmeriCorps can contact the United Way office or fill out an application at www.americorps.gov and indicate you want to serve in Northwest Indiana.