Below is the story as it appeared in The Columbian on August 7, 2010.
By Jordan Frasier, Columbian Web Intern
As a fresh college graduate with a degree in environmental studies, Ben Duncan faced a daunting job market to put his education to use.
Duncan, a 2000 graduate of the University of Oregon, spent several years working at odd jobs while searching for a way into a field that complements his degree and his passion for environmental protection.
But in 2004, he began working at Washington State University Vancouver’s Center for Social and Environmental Justice through the Northwest Service Academy. It was a path to a permanent job. But now that path may be ending.
The Northwest Service Academy is an AmeriCorps program administered by Educational Service District 112 that places nearly 500 members with nonprofit and government agencies to help with community service and environmental projects in Washington, Oregon and three other states.
“I like to tell people I did my undergraduate work at the University of Oregon, but I did my graduate work at Northwest Service Academy,” Duncan said.
Now in a position with Multnomah County Public Health’s Environmental Health Division, Duncan has the chance to work with students on a regular basis, and he’s repeatedly asked how he got his job. He always credits AmeriCorps for helping him build the experience he needed.
“It’s tough to get your foot in the door because it’s so competitive,” Duncan said. “NWSA provided an opportunity that otherwise would not have existed for someone like me.”
But academy programs will be phased out this month unless $11.4 million is secured to cover their costs for the next three years.
“Unless there is some change in funding, we will be closing our doors at the end of August,” said Neil Schulman, training coordinator for the Lower Columbia Center, which oversees academy work locally.
The academy has been federally funded for its 16-year existence through the Corporation for National and Community Service. Academy staffers are looking for answers as to why the funds stopped now.
“It’s a puzzle to us why our funding is being cut,” Schulman said.
The federal funds are half of the academy’s funding, with the rest from matches by local employers.
Schulman said it’s hard to know if reapplying for federal money in January would be a good idea, since nobody can tell them why the money was denied this time.
The academy is looking at other options to maintain operations without the federal money, but anything would be bare-bones compared to the current program, Schulman said.
Of the federal money received over three years, $5.15 million goes to the local program. Another $7.1 million comes from the local matching funds.
The local program works with about 75 organizations in Oregon and Southwest Washington, and approximately 100 AmeriCorps members every year.
Some of those workers staff a Clark Public Utilities field team that looks at water quality and habitat restoration.
Aaron Shaw, the utility’s watershed field coordinator who oversees the academy team, said the disappearance of the program would impact the amount of work his team is able to accomplish.
“The immediate impact is the scope of work of what we do, because the AmeriCorps program is heavily invested in our outreach and volunteer program,” Shaw said.
The five AmeriCorps members on the field team fill positions that otherwise couldn’t exist because of budget constraints, and Shaw doesn’t know how those positions could be filled without the academy.
“We’ve explored other organizations that may be able to contribute AmeriCorps members,” Shaw said. “But we haven’t had much success at this point in finding someone to provide us with an environmental field team.”
All of the participants in the academy are college graduates in their mid-20s who go through a competitive application process. In exchange for their service, participants earn a small living stipend and health insurance and get some federal help to pay off education debt.
Schulman said there are often times that the academy has been forced to turn away participants and organizations who want workers because of the program’s popularity — a popularity that is noticed by participants.
“I don’t know where I would be without NWSA and without that experience,” Duncan said.
Jordan Frasier: firstname.lastname@example.org.