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Volunteers offer service that money can’t gauge

On Jan. 31, a headline on The Journal Gazette’s front page read: “Stutzman trying to abolish agency, finds fault with paying volunteers.”

The agency Rep. Marlin Stutzman hopes to abolish is the Corporation for National and Community Service, which funds a number of volunteer organizations including AmeriCorps, Foster Grandparent Program, Senior Companion Program, and Retired & Senior Volunteer Program.

As director of Fort Wayne’s Foster Grandparent Program, I would like to point out what the loss of this program would mean to our community. Our 70 foster grandparents would no longer serve 20 hours a week at Head Start programs, child care centers for low-income families, a domestic violence shelter, schools and a homeless shelter.

Last year, Foster Grandparents spent more than 74,000 hours caring for children at those sites.

They rocked crying babies, read books to preschoolers and tutored struggling students. They gave the children the unhurried love and one-on-one attention that is essential to their healthy development.

Consider this example of one foster grandparent’s relationship with one child, then multiply it by 70 grandparents serving hundreds of children.

Grandma “Mary” was given the challenge of working with “Anthony,” an elementary school student who was functioning well below grade level. He had deficiencies in every aspect of language arts, not even grasping the idea that a written word represents an object or concept in the real world. Grandma spent one-on-one time with Anthony every day. They worked on phonic recognition, vocabulary building and sentence structure. By the end of the semester, Anthony was functioning at grade level.

The teacher noticed another benefit as well. Instead of withdrawing during class discussions because he couldn’t express his thoughts very well, Anthony became eager to participate, confident in his ability to contribute.

Yes, foster grandparents receive some compensation – a non-taxable stipend of $2.65 an hour. With incomes averaging less than $13,000 a year, they would not be able to make a commitment of 20 hours a week without some kind of financial incentive.

And that depth of commitment is just what the children need – a patient, caring “grandparent” whom they see every day, a stable and consistent influence in the lives of youngsters whose home environments are often difficult and chaotic.

The bill to eliminate CNCS is called the “Volunteer Freedom Act” – an ironic name for legislation that would inhibit volunteerism rather than liberate it.

Yes, in the short term, abolishing CNCS would save the federal government money.

But communities that are already suffering from budget cuts would lose volunteers in crucial areas such as mentoring children, assisting the frail elderly, responding to disasters, feeding the hungry and cleaning up the environment.

In the long run, someone would have to pay for the services currently being provided by CNCS’ 5 million volunteers – at a much higher cost than that of running the volunteer programs. A better solution would be to let CNCS continue to generate service to meet these needs, so the Anthonys of this country will not be left behind.

Jeanette DeVore is director of the Fort Wayne Foster Grandparent Program of Lutheran Life Villages. She wrote this for The Journal Gazette.