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South Mississippi Living 4/07

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Cochran to go to bat for young volunteers


One of the most popular voluntary programs that came to public attention in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the National Civilian Community Corps, is facing a budget crunch.

The House has passed an appropriation for fiscal year 2008 that would dramatically cut back funding for NCCC from $26 million this year to the president's proposed budget level of $11 million. But in the Senate Appropriations Committee, the program has a booster - Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the panel's powerful ranking Republican.

"It's a volunteer program that has meant so much to the people of Mississippi," said Cochran in an interview.

Cochran has pushed for an increase to $31 million, which the appropriations panel has approved and which now awaits Senate action. The Senate bill would open two new training campuses for volunteers - one in Vicksburg at a recently closed Episcopal boarding school and one in Vinton, Iowa. As part of a belt tightening this year, NCCC closed two of its five campuses, in Washington and Charleston, S.C. Its three remaining campuses are in Sacramento, Denver and Perry Point, Md.

NCCC, which is under the AmeriCorps umbrella, is a 10-month program for 18- to 24-year-olds who do short-term projects for six to eight weeks in areas of need. The approximately 1,200 volunteers a year receive a small stipend - making the program a target of fiscal conservatives who think it is not government's role to pay for charity.

But after Katrina the NCCC volunteers, who typically work in teams of 10, have been a welcome sight on the Coast.

"You can't go anywhere on the Gulf (Coast) to any civic meeting that when you mention the NCCC, you don't get a standing ovation," said Marsha Meeks Kelly, executive director of the Mississippi Commission for Volunteer Services. "They have really rocked the Coast."

The young members, as they are called, have played a major role in reconstruction projects. "We actually can't live without our NCCC," said Jeannie Antonetti, volunteer manager at the Habitat for Humanity-Mississippi Gulf Coast. "They're a great asset to our organization."

The NCCC has made a commitment to the Gulf region - Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Florida - to have 60 percent of members rotate through the area.

And that makes the prospect of a Vicksburg campus especially appealing.

"That would mean another opportunity to expand and train more members," said Jen Prall, assistant project director, NCCC-Gulf Coast. "To have that facility would certainly be a positive thing."

The site of the proposed campus is the former All Saints' Episcopal School, a boarding school on 40 acres in Vicksburg. Cochran said local proponents talked to him about using the site for the NCCC program. "It sounded like a good idea to me," said Cochran. "We're trying to be helpful.

"We hope we can be successful in negotiations with the House," he said. "I'm hopeful that we can get a generous appropriation for this activity."

Originally published here by the Sun Herald on September 13, 2007.

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