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Gioia protests cut to AmeriCorps $$

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Teachers, students and young volunteers protested a potential 60 percent cut in funding to the federal AmeriCorps program in front of PS 229 in Woodside Monday as Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Sunnyside) slammed President George Bush and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives for failing to restore the money.

“AmeriCorps is truly everything that is right about America,” said Gioia, invoking the examples of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration and John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps. “It is a living, breathing symbol of what we can accomplish as Americans.”

Due to an accounting mistake by the federal government last year, New York City could lose $15 million in funding and as many as 1,000 AmeriCorps volunteers, Gioia told a news conference. Statewide, the program could lose $51 million.

The federally supported volunteer initiative, established by President Clinton and Congress in 1993 to reward young adults who volunteer for school and community projects in needy areas, will face the potentially crippling cut unless the House votes to add $100 million in emergency spending. According to Gioia, Bush has remained silent on the issue and put no pressure on House leaders.

As if addressing the president directly, he said, “If you truly believe in the values of America, in service, in working together ... you will fund AmeriCorps, and you will fund it fully, and you will make a stand.”

Laura Blieka, a special education teacher at PS 229 who has worked with AmeriCorps members for the past three years, said volunteer classroom assistants made it possible for her to devote more time to one-on-one instruction with her students.

“They’re willing. They’re ready. They have never said no to me,” she said. “They say, ‘What can I do? What else can I do? Can I come more?’”

In addition to assistance in the classroom for teachers such as Blieka, AmeriCorps volunteers at PS 229 also help run the after-school program, which provides homework assistance, art projects, community service and tutoring for more than 300 children each day.

Ebette Fortune, a Boston College graduate in political science and an AmeriCorps alumna, said the program had helped her to pursue her dreams of studying polity and community advocacy.

“Young people want to serve in New York City,” she said. “Young people want to become leaders in their communities. Young people want to develop job skills and earn money for college or job training. Without AmeriCorps, this cannot happen.”

AmeriCorps volunteers receive a small weekly stipend and a $4,700 bonus to spend on college, job training or other educational expenses.

Although the U.S. Senate acted to restore $100 million in emergency funding to correct the problem, a key committee in the House of Representatives voted Monday not to include the money in its own version of the comprehensive spending bill now under consideration.

U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) said House leaders decided Monday not to schedule a floor vote on the measure, instead shelving the issue until early September, when the House returns from its summer recess. Although the funding could be restored at one of several points in the legislative process — either by the House Appropriations Committee during future committee hearings, by the full House during floor action or in a conference committee between the House and Senate — there is no provision in the current bill to restore the money.

“I am disappointed that funding for AmeriCorps is being cut,” Crowley said, noting that Bush has shown a desire to start his own domestic volunteer program. “It is odd that Mr. Bush would want to cut a program that is the basis for his initiative. I pledge to do all I can to continue to push for the AmeriCorps funding in the House.”

Still, he said the delay was good news, because it would allow supporters of the program to make their case.

Reach reporter Alex Ginsberg by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

Posted 7:22 pm, October 10, 2011
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