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Hope in Cedar Rapids as Washington pushes volunteerism

  • Story Highlights
  • AmeriCorps helps community groups in Iowa rebuild homes hit in 2008 floods
  • AmeriCorps VISTA provided 100 volunteers to clean up low-income neighborhoods
  • Volunteers energized over bill to increase funding for service programs
  • Bill creates new national service corps, initiatives, increases educational stipend
By Alan Silverleib
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(CNN) -- As the floodwaters rose by the hour, so did Bruce Vander Sanden's worst fears.

President Obama has vowed to sign legislation expanding the federal national service program.

Bruce Vander Sanden says AmeriCorps volunteers helped his community group clean up after the 2008 Iowa floods.

"It was devastating," he said. "The most vulnerable people were being hit the hardest. They were losing their homes, their jobs, everything."

So the 43-year-old father of two rolled up his sleeves and began preparing Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for the long road back.

"We didn't really have a choice," he said. "There were so many people in such desperate need."

In many ways, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, and dozens of other communities still haven't recovered from the record-setting June 2008 floods that ripped apart homes and lives across eastern Iowa.

But with the help of organizations and programs supported by the AmeriCorps volunteer service program, they are seeing significant improvements.

One of those programs is a Cedar Rapids "Weed and Seed" initiative, created to "weed out" crime and "seed in" social services for low-income neighborhoods in need of revitalization.

Vander Sanden, an Iowa corrections system manager, helps to coordinate the program.

"In June 2008, 60 percent of our 'Weed and Seed' neighborhoods ended up under water," he told CNN. "The program went from trying to improve neighborhoods to just trying to save neighborhoods -- period."

But the initiative's full-time nine-member team was not nearly large enough to handle the task. There were 5,390 low- to moderate-income households in the Cedar Rapids area affected by the floods, Vander Sanden said. Thousands of homes needed to be mucked out, among other things.

Vander Sanden turned to the AmeriCorps VISTA program, which focuses on poverty assistance. It provided 25 additional additional full-time members, as well as 100 summer volunteers.

"It made a huge difference," Vander Sanden said. "We ended up being primary coordination point for flood victims who needed volunteer assistance."

AmeriCorps has "been an awesome resource for us to get things done," he added. "The individuals [from] the VISTA program have the true spirit of community service. They're here to serve in every way, shape, and form."

But Vander Sanden acknowledges there's still a long way to go. A full recovery from flooding on the magnitude of what Iowa experienced in 2008 can take up to five years, he said.

It also takes more manpower than the "Weed and Seed program" has available. So far, the program has been able to reach only 20 percent of homes in the Cedar Rapids area affected by the floods.

That's one of the reasons Vander Sanden was thrilled to learn that the House of Representatives passed legislation Tuesday that will, among other things, more than triple the number of positions in the AmeriCorps program from 75,000 to 250,000 by the year 2017.

The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, recently renamed to honor the Massachusetts senator's sponsorship, is designed to strengthen volunteer national community service by boosting funding for thousands of volunteers in fields such as clean energy, health care and education.

The House passed it by a vote of 275-149; the Senate cleared identical legislation last Thursday by a vote of 78-20. President Obama, who spent several years working as a community organizer, is expected to sign it into law shortly.

"At this time of economic crisis, we need service and volunteering more than ever. This bill will unleash a new era of service for our nation at a time of great need," AmeriCorps spokesman Sandy Scott told CNN.

The increase could have a huge ripple effect in national volunteerism rates. Last year, the 75,000 AmeriCorps members recruited and supervised 2.2 million community volunteers, according to Scott.

At the same time, the bill would create four new national service corps and several other initiatives, including a "Summer of Service" program to spur greater community outreach by middle and high school students.

Older Americans would be encouraged to volunteer more through the creation of a "Silver Scholars" program, under which individuals 55 and older who perform 350 hours of service would receive a $1,000 award.

The legislation would also increase the existing AmeriCorps educational stipend offered to volunteers to $5,350 -- the same amount as the maximum Pell college grant.

"History has shown that in times of crisis, Americans turn to service and volunteering for healing, for rebuilding and for hope," one of the bill's main House co-sponsors, Rep. George Miller, D-California, said shortly before its final passage.

"The spirit and generosity of the American people is one of our greatest assets as a nation. ... [It] is just what this country needs at this pivotal moment in our history."

Some critics said that the bill, which is expected to cost roughly $6 billion over the next five years, is fiscally irresponsible in light of the economic downturn. They also argue that the concept of volunteerism is undermined by providing financial compensation.

For Vander Sanden, however, the bill can't be signed into law fast enough.

Communities like Cedar Rapids "still have a long way to go," he said. With the size of AmeriCorps tripling, "if we, in turn, triple the size of our program, we'd theoretically be able to triple the number of households we could reach. It would have an incalculable impact."

Until then, however, Vander Sanden and his fellow volunteers will make do with what they have. The floods may have struck months ago, but the goal of a full recovery remains a long way in the future.

All About AmeriCorpsBarack ObamaU.S. House of RepresentativesCedar Rapids

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