A long-running volunteer program for seniors in Columbia County will end this summer, leaving United Way and county leaders searching for time and money to keep those volunteers engaged.
Columbia River Fire & Rescue has sponsored the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, or RSVP, for decades, but fire officials decided in February not to continue past this June after finding the district was shouldering more expenses for the program than expected.
AmeriCorps distributes federal funding for RSVP, but federal policy only allows new bid cycles on set schedules. The next local bid cycle won't take place for two more years.
The Serve America Act, which sets how AmeriCorps programs are funded and operated, doesn't allow RSVP sponsors to transfer the program to a new group, AmeriCorps Seniors Deputy Director Robin Corindo told the Spotlight.
That means that after June 30, Columbia County RSVP will cease to exist.
Monica Cade, who has led RSVP since 2013, supports roughly 300 volunteers who read books to students in class; greet visitors at the front desk of the county courthouse; distribute books to kids during the summer; provide support for homeless teens through clothes, school supplies and gift cards; assist the Columbia Pacific Food Bank and local senior centers; and more.
AmeriCorps provides $76,434 per year and requires a 33% match from other sources. The costs for RSVP include Cade's salary, reimbursing volunteers' transportation expenses, and providing volunteer recognition activities like the Volunteer of the Month program.
"One of the things that we provide for volunteers is recognition, and that's always been my favorite thing to do, is to recognize the amazing volunteers throughout Columbia County," Cade said. "They're not looking for recognition, but they're so appreciative when they receive it."
Though it takes place in July, after the RSVP program will end, the annual My Fair Lady pageant is still on for this year. The pageant takes place at the county fair, with senior women representing the cities of Columbia County.
Cade said she is committed to the 33rd — and possibly final — My Fair Lady pageant "to kind of give closure to the past My Fair Lady courts."
The average age of Columbia County RSVP volunteers is 72 years old. In 2021, over 21,000 volunteer hours were logged through the program, according to CRF&R meeting minutes.
The program benefits the groups that the volunteers serve, as well as the volunteers themselves, helping to combat the isolation and loneliness that afflicts many seniors.
County commissioners and the nonprofit United Way of Columbia County are now "working really hard to come up with creative solutions about how to continue to support senior volunteer programs," United Way of Columbia County executive director Claire Catt said.
"If we were able to apply for the grant right now, we would absolutely apply," Catt said. "I have reached out to and tried to work with AmeriCorps. It's just that timing."
AmeriCorps RSVP funding isn't on the table for the next two years, but local organizers are determined to not let the senior volunteer program lapse entirely.
"We know that if we let the program go away and all the volunteers go away, it'll be nearly impossible to bring them back," Columbia County Commissioner Henry Heimuller said.
"If we could apply for the program, we would have the in-kind or local donations to meet the matching requirement. And then we probably could have capacity to hire at least a half-time person, if not a full-time person, and continue the program at full capacity, but the barrier is really the timing at the federal level to receive these funds," Catt said.
Instead, United Way is planning to host a pared-down version of RSVP for the next two years, relying on Catt and a few lead RSVP volunteers to fulfill at least parts of Cade's current role.
Catt, county commissioners and RSVP volunteers met in May to plan how to "maintain some sort of continuity with senior volunteers at local programs and set us up in a position where Columbia County could receive that RSVP funding when it becomes available," Catt said, "Because we certainly don't want the program to lapse, lose all of the volunteers, lose the buy in, lose the community partners and have to start from scratch."
United Way's board voted on May 16 to partner with the county for the next fiscal year "to maintain senior volunteer programs in Columbia County," Catt said. The two groups don't have a contract in place yet but expect to enter into one in the next few weeks.
At Columbia Pacific Food Bank, 21 volunteers — or approximately half the total volunteers — are part of RSVP, according to Columbia Pacific Food Bank executive director Alex Tardif. Most of those volunteers approached the food bank first and were then connected with RSVP, Tardif said.
RSVP volunteers also staff the front desk at the Columbia County Courthouse, which houses county offices and the circuit court system. When the county opens up additional offices in the John Gumm building, which it purchased last year, volunteers will also be needed to staff reception at that building.
Heimuller requested $30,000 from the county's economic development budget for a senior volunteer program in the coming fiscal year, but the budget is still pending.
CRF&R "has gone above and beyond the call of duty" in sponsoring RSVP, Heimuller said, but the fire district's board ultimately decided the program wasn't in line with its mission.
"Spending our district's funding on programs that don't directly relate to fire and EMS limits our ability to give our very best to the constituents we serve," CRF&R spokeswoman Jennifer Motherway said.
Fire board minutes from a February meeting stated that it had "recently been discovered" that the district was paying more than the budgeted amount to supplement RSVP. The district's budget shows expenses for RSVP total $81,435, roughly $5,000 more than the AmeriCorps grant.
CRF&R spokeswoman Jennifer Motherway said Fire Chief Joel Medina, who was hired in December 2020, "reviewed the financials and reported to the board that the program was financially untenable." The cost of the RSVP administrator position, including salary, benefits and associated payroll costs, was roughly $96,000 per year, Motherway said — far more than the amount included in the fire district's budget.
CRF&R board members said that the original expectation was that sponsoring RSVP would not add significant expenses for the fire district, meeting minutes show.
But Motherway said that the in-kind match required to receive the federal funding has primarily come from the fire district.
"In-kind donations in smaller amounts have been provided over the years from other entities, but not enough to support what this program offers and lessen the fire district's financial liability," Motherway said.
Heimuller said he has spoken to federal legislators about the issue with the AmeriCorps grant bid cycle "ad nauseum, until I'm blue in the face."
"I've been working with Senator (Jeff) Merkley's office, Congresswoman (Suzanne) Bonamici's office, literally on a daily basis," Heimuller said.
In an April 29 letter to the CEO of AmeriCorps, Bonamici urged the organization to make an exception and allow an off-schedule application.
"Holding a grant competition ahead of schedule in this unique situation would allow for limited interruption to the valuable service the Columbia County RSVP initiatives bring to schools and agencies across the region. Given that grant funding cannot be transferred from one entity to another, I ask for your full and fair consideration of administrative flexibility in this unique situation," Bonamici wrote.
As of May 16, Bonamici's request had not been accommodated.
"Everybody sympathizes with the issue," Heimuller said, "(Because) this happens periodically each year. It's just something that needs to be fixed."
He added, "When they set the whole thing up, they just simply didn't factor in what happens if a program sponsor decides they want out."
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