In St. Cloud, seniors meet with kids at school to practice reading and help with homework. In Duluth, volunteers help make sure the region is ready for the next natural disaster. And in the metro area, a coordinator works with other volunteers who support people seeking jobs and housing.
They are all working through AmeriCorps VISTA and Senior Corps — two programs that face an uncertain future under the Trump administration.
Congress has rejected two of the administration’s attempts to eliminate the federal agency that administers national service programs, which would remove the federal government’s responsibility for funding national service and volunteerism. But now, that federal agency — the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) — is restructuring, closing Minnesota’s state office May 1 along with 45 other state offices to shift to regional offices.
There are few places more affected by the change than Minnesota, which ranks third nationally for the number of AmeriCorps volunteers. Some nonprofits fret about losing the local connection to the federal agency, which they say may eventually mean less federal money and fewer volunteers. Others worry that closing state offices is the first step toward eliminating the agency altogether.
“There’s no guarantee we’ll be able to continue this work,” said Krista Eichhorst, the AmeriCorps VISTA program manager for the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration. “Minnesota stands to lose the support we’ve had for volunteerism.”
The CNCS provides federal grants to organizations for community service projects, mostly through the AmeriCorps — sometimes called the domestic Peace Corps — and Senior Corps programs.
Across Minnesota, there are about 230 VISTA members doing everything from tutoring children to leading projects at nonprofits. Many of them are just out of college or in between careers, and they get a frugal living stipend.
More than 10,000 adults age 55 and older are in Minnesota’s Senior Corps, tutoring children, working at food shelves or other agencies and helping fellow seniors live on their own; low-income seniors get a stipend and mileage reimbursement.
In total, Minnesota gets about $8 million in federal money for Senior Corps and VISTA programming.
For 2019, Congress appropriated $1 billion for the CNCS — $19 million more than 2018.
That was more than the administration asked for in its budget request, which proposed eliminating the agency by the end of 2019, “returning responsibility to fund national service and volunteerism to the private and nonprofit sectors.” Congress rejected the proposal.
Now, closing CNCS state offices in favor of fewer regional offices is a “workaround” to getting congressional support, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat, said in a statement.
She sent a letter last week signed by 35 other Democratic lawmakers, including Minnesota Reps. Angie Craig, Ilhan Omar, Collin Peterson and Dean Phillips, that urged the CNCS to reconsider. McCollum also argued that the plan could violate a federal statute that says that the state office should be located in a “reasonable proximity” to the state.
“The distance and inevitable disconnect from local communities is simply unacceptable,” McCollum said in the letter.
But the agency’s spokeswoman, Samantha Jo Warfield, said the changes won’t reduce funding or the agency’s “commitment to communities.”
“Ultimately, this plan is about growth: putting CNCS on sound footing so that more people, more organizations, and more communities will access and benefit from national service,” Warfield said in a statement. “The communities around us are changing, and to serve them well, we must change, too.”
In Minnesota, a state service commission, ServeMinnesota, is separate from the CNCS state office and administers AmeriCorps state programs such as the Reading Corps and Math Corps, which aren’t affected by the restructuring.
But unless the CNCS reverses its decision, Minnesota’s four-person CNCS office will shut down May 1 and staff will telework until the regional office opens in September in Kansas City, Mo.
“Someone in Kansas City isn’t necessarily going to know or care about small communities in Fairmont or Aitkin or Bemidji,” said Meghan Paul-Cook, the national service director at the Minnesota Literacy Council, one of 14 VISTA sponsors in the state. “National service is valuable to our state. It’s a way organizations can turn dream projects into reality. … Who knows what could be the future of national service?”
Some nonprofits worry the loss of the state office will be especially problematic for organizations outside the metro.
In Duluth, AmeriCorps VISTA members are working on a wide range of issues — from addressing the opioid epidemic to increasing access to healthy food.
When the Minnesota CNCS office shuts down, Jodi Slick, the CEO of Ecolibrium3, a nonprofit that runs the AmeriCorps VISTA program in St. Louis County, will have to reapply for VISTA members through the new Missouri office. She worries that staff outside Minnesota won’t understand the local community’s needs.
“When we talk about the Range, we’re not talking about an appliance or where the buffalo roam,” Slick said of the Iron Range. “It’s not something that will be understood by someone 700 miles away.”
As a result, she said, rural nonprofits may be unable to compete against other regional entities, losing out on money and critical volunteers.
Jim Scheibel, a former St. Paul mayor and former director of AmeriCorps VISTA and the Senior Corps, added that a program “works better when it’s designed and created and nurtured at the local level.”
Local offices “know Minnesota, they know the needs. It’s a great tradition in Minnesota and we don’t want to lose that,” he said.
If the CNCS — an agency established in 1993 — is eventually eliminated, that will effectively close down the VISTA and Senior Corps programs, said Stacy Lund, president of the Minnesota Senior Corps Association, because they rely on federal funding.
“For most of our programs in Minnesota, it would mean we wouldn’t be able to survive,” she said. “The number of volunteers and the number of hours these volunteers provide in our community is significant.”