The Anniston Star

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July 25, 2014

Local program at risk from federal cuts

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Posted: Friday, May 30, 2014 5:31 pm | Updated: 12:31 am, Tue Jun 3, 2014.

JACKSONVILLE — Diane Turner is a 67-year-old grandmother who favors the color purple, keeps a prayer list at her desk and worries that her job is in jeopardy because of a proposed federal spending cut.

“It breaks my heart,” said Turner, who helps coordinate the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, which places older volunteers in service roles around the county. “For me, it’s more than a job.”

Turner said she gets to know the seniors she works with, sometimes spending long stints on the phone just listening. Each year she send members birthday cards, and when they’re absent she calls to check on them.

“We do a lots of things that people just don’t know we do,” Turner said.

RSVP, a national program created in 1971, is a volunteer network for people age 55 and older. The organization helps match people with nonprofit organizations, governments and businesses who need them. Last year in Calhoun County 345 volunteers logged 60,715 hours by working through the program.

Denise Rucker, director of the local RSVP office in Jacksonville, is worried the local program could close if Congress approves President Barack Obama’s proposed budget.

“Basically there will no longer be a Calhoun County RSVP,” Rucker said.

The funding cut could also jeopardize the other 23 RSVP offices across the state, including those in Birmingham, Mobile and Montgomery, if the budget passes, said Betty Ruth, president of the National Association of RSVP Directors. Ruth, who is the long-time director of an RSVP program in Athens, said the RSVP programs in Alabama are likely too small to survive any major budget cuts.

“What we are hoping is that the president’s budget doesn’t pass,” Ruth said.

For fiscal year 2015, Obama is requesting $1.5 billion in funding for the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency under which RSVP programs operate. The agency’s website describes the request as a “strong investment in national service programs.”

Within that proposed budget, however, there is no funding specifically assigned to RSVP, a program that received roughly $48.9 million in federal funding this fiscal year. Instead, the government would cut RSVP funding by about two-thirds and would allocate $19 million to the Volunteer Generation Fund, which would be used to incorporate some RSVP programs, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Samantha Jo Warfield, a spokeswoman for the Corporation for National and Community Service, wrote in an email that it is too early to know how the budget cuts will affect Alabama if they are approved. She added that the most competitive RSVP programs will compete for grant funding through the Volunteer Generation Fund.

Warfield did not respond to questions about whether the RSVP funding cut originated at the White House or within the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Ruth said the future of RSVP is in the hands of Congress, which is expected to approve a new budget by Sept. 30. If lawmakers don’t vote on a budget, she said, RSVP will keep this year’s funding —  $48.9 million —  for the next fiscal year. If that happens, Ruth said, Alabama’s RSVP programs could be saved for another year.

The local RSVP office is inside a former train depot in Jacksonville. The group is funded through a combination of federal, state and local sources totalling $140,000 per year. The office employs two full-time workers and one part-time staff member, Rucker said.

Rucker said federal funding accounts for about 30 percent, or $47,000 of the organization's budget. Without it, she said, Calhoun County RSVP, established in 1972, could remain open without federal money if local funding increases.

Rucker said the city of Jacksonville, the organization's sponsor, provides at least $19,000 each year, and that the Calhoun County Commission provides $10,000 each year. The city of Anniston and United Way of Calhoun County each provide $4,000. Rucker said Anniston's donation is down from about $5,000 in previous years, and the United Way donation dropped from $7,500 last year.

The city of Oxford, Rucker said, typically provides $10,000 annually but has not provided any money this year. RSVP also receives about $3,000 from donations and about $2,200 from an annual fundraiser, she said.

People who volunteer through the program locally work at community events such as the Sunny King Golf Classic, at area hospitals and in local businesses. They helped with disaster relief after the April 27, 2011 tornado. They also volunteer at the Jacksonville Public Library, helping residents learn how to use computers, email and search the Internet.

Jacksonville Public Library Director Barbara Rowell said that because of the volunteers’ work, many Jacksonville residents have learned to use technology to access government services and to better communicate with family members.

“It’s just amazing the things that they now have open to them that really helps them in their lives,” Rowell said, adding that she is reliant on RSVP volunteers and her budget is not large enough to hire people to teach seniors how to use technology.

Andrea Turner, manager of volunteer services for Gentiva Hospice in Oxford, said four of the 20 volunteers who assist her organization are from RSVP. Of those, three are veterans who play a unique role, signing up to visit other veterans because they are more likely to understand their experiences.

“We would miss the volunteers from RSVP if they were to close,” Turner said.

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