Urban Service Program
Assists Volunteers Too

National Council of Churches of Christ

NEW YORK -- An ecumenical program administered by the National Council of Churches of Christ (NCCC) and now in its third year is not only strengthening U.S. communities and providing for a variety of human needs -- it is also making life a little easier for the hard-working volunteers who are making the program such a success.

The Ecumenical Program for Urban Service (EPRUS) has been "a Godsend," says Diann Brand, a volunteer with the Kentucky-based Christian Appalachian Project (CAP). Ms. Brand, a second-year volunteer, is one of 312 AmeriCorps volunteers nationally who received EPRUS/AmeriCorps Education Only Awards for their work last year.

This year, 1,650 volunteers will receive awards and next year that number is expected to rise to 5,500, an increase Jan Schrock, director of EPRUS Special Projects, attributes to the increasing role churches have in the nation's volunteer efforts.

Now in its second year, the Regional Community Service Education Awards Only Program has provided education awards to AmeriCorps volunteers who serve in existing programs with the Council of Religious Volunteer Agencies.

Participating agencies include Brethren Volunteer Service, the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission, the Homeland Ministries of the United Church of Christ, the Christian Reformed Church Volunteer Program, and the Catholic Network of Volunteer Agencies.

The Education Awards Only Program is one of the key components of the EPRUS/AmeriCorps program, which is funded by the Corporation for National Service, the national service movement initiated by President Bill Clinton, and is administered through the NCCC, which represents 33 Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox member denominations and communions.

"Religious organizations have done community service for many decades, and now working with AmeriCorps, we can offer benefits," said Schrock.

Adds Chrissy Zaker, director of Amate House, which places volunteers in sites in and around Chicago: "This has definitely been a good thing. the church has always done this work and now there is a team effort among churches, social service agencies and the government to do this work together. It's a team effort."

PRUS began in October 1994 in four cities, Cleveland, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Seattle, and expanded to Orlando in 1995 - leading to the present EPRUS Five-City Program.

AmeriCorps members are placed in programs in the cities, most are recruited from local neighborhoods, others are recruited non-locally from colleges, universities, Council of Religious Volunteer Agencies, the NCCC and the AmeriCorps National Pool.

The Five-City Program now has 100 volunteers working in team projects that emphasize non-violence and health and educational strategies to empower urban neighborhoods.

The volunteers help children and youth in church- based programs that include in-school and after- school tutoring, alternative recreation programs, summer camp programs and activities, parenting education, childcare, conflict mediation training, conflict resolution and health care for teen-age mothers.

Year-long team-building training is a unique feature of EPRUS/AmeriCorps. Programs begin with an initial orientation, and provide ongoing training and reflection throughout the year.

EPRUS programs are run through inner-city ecumenical agencies which, by working together, address the violence and neglect which affect children and youth. Many programs in each city take place in churches which have become vibrant community centers offering after-school, evening, Saturday and summer programs.

EPRUS members also work within schools along with teachers and administrators to address needs of children and youth. A major objective of the EPRUS program is to mobilize and nurture local volunteers so that the programs will be sustainable.

In the Pittsburgh program, for example, the East End Cooperative Ministry has provided what Schrock calls "a safety cushion" for schools in Pittsburgh's East End by working with youths who are "acting out" in school. Alternative recreation, tutoring and mentoring programs are provided in area churches six days a week. "This is an incredible piece of work they do," Schrock said, noting, too, that the program has initiated an urban summer camp for some 550 children and youths. Many who have gone to the camp have, in turn, become camp counselors.

The success of the urban program prompted the Corporation for National Service to support an additional program - providing education awards to AmeriCorps volunteers who serve in existing programs.

That proved a boon to volunteers like Diann Brand, who came to Kentucky to do social service work but still had the burden of paying off her college student loans. Thanks to her $4750 grant, Brand, a 1989 graduate of Benedictine College in Kansas, was able to pay off her loans, easing the financial way so she could eventually prepare for graduate studies. "The program benefits people right out of college and also those like me who were a little older and still paying off our student loans."

The idea of even contemplating graduate school would have been impossible, she says, without the grant. "This has been like an act of grace," says Brand, 30, a case worker with CAP, a non-profit non- denominational service organization in eastern Kentucky.

Brand's work focuses on emergency services - helping impoverished families with emergency situations, whether that means "scrambling" to get clothing or emergency shelter, or help with utility bills. One day recently, Brand had spent trying to find a bulldozing service for a family trying to level off some land so they could build a house.

"It can be stressful at times," she says of her work, which she describes as being a "Jill of all trades" - part counselor, part "Welcome Wagon lady," part Santa Claus. Brand came to Kentucky having done stints teaching and doing social service work.

Just as the volunteer work allowed her to do that, the EPRUS grant allowed her to start thinking about graduate school. She may yet complete a Masters of Public Administration or in Social Work.

Kathy Kluesener, a coordinator at CAP and also a regional EPRUS trainer, said the EPRUS program has produced "many success stories." For the agencies, it means keeping volunteers on for a longer period of time.

And the benefits for the volunteers are obvious. "One of our most persistent questions by perspective volunteers is, `I'd like to volunteer but I have a student loan.' It really helps them out. And as the need for volunteers increases, it's a real help for people with loan worries."

Nell Gibson of the NCCC, who formerly worked with the EPRUS program, said the program's success proves that young people have "gotten a bad rap."

"There's a lot of idealism among young Americans and the media play up the worst elements. There's a sense of idealism among young people that people don't talk about," she said.

The Rev. Chuck Rawlings, coordinator of the NCCC's Urban Programs Unit, adds that the EPRUS program is continuing a historical tradition of U.S. mainline churches working ecumenically to improve social conditions - a tradition perhaps best exemplified by the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

"These new programs are opening up ways to make that happen again," Rev. Rawlings said, "to teach that spirit again, to turn young people on to what they can do for society."

Practical obstacles can stand in the way of such idealism, especially for young people in the African American and Latino communities. That is why in EPRUS's third year, the Education Awards Only program expanded to include members who are providing community service through churches and community service agencies affiliated with Black and Hispanic churches. This year, the program will expand to include Asian and Native American churches.

Those involved in the Hispanic churches program are involved in health, community safety, education, and environmental work, notes the Rev. Eddie Lopez, a United Methodist pastor in the Bronx and coordinator of the Hispanic program.

"Latinos and Latinas are the poorest minority group in our country. Here is an opportunity to put together poor churches with poor students," he said. "It is helping the churches, social agencies, students and, of course, those members of our community who receive assistance in tutoring, soup kitchens, food pantries and a host of other areas."

The role these programs are playing in their communities can't be overestimated, he said, because it affords congregations the chance to become involved in their communities, creating what Lopez calls "transforming change," and assisting "our young adults and adults to obtain a college education, which for some would otherwise be unaffordable."

"Here is an opportunity to create an ethic in our communities in which we `do for ourselves,' " he said. "I think this alone is worth the money that the federal government is spending on AmeriCorps."

Posted May 22, 1997

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