Peoria Journal Star

Late payments threaten volunteers

Organization that supplies volunteers to 125 agencies finds itself in financial bind

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

PEORIA — The state is late with its funding commitment to RSVP of Peoria and Tazewell Counties, and that potentially could jeopardize the organization’s ability to supply volunteers to its 125 partner agencies.

The Retired and Senior Volunteer Program recruits and provides volunteers aged 55 or older to not-for-profit organizations. Volunteers answer phones, work on landscaping, tutor, serve coffee and generally help not-for-profits fulfill their missions.

“Our volunteers can’t take the place of staff. We know that, but we can help staff as much as we can,” said Jeff Turnbull, director of RSVP of Peoria and Tazewell Counties. “I am both humbled and amazed at the level of dedication of our volunteers. They are doing the work of angels and doing it out of the kindness of their hearts.”

Friendship House is the fiscal agent for RSVP and accepts government grants for the organization. Barbara Hartnett, executive director of Friendship House, was relieved when partial payment arrived in the mail Thursday afternoon.

“Up to this point, we have not had to help financially. Their revenue is from federal and state grants. It has been a self-supporting program,” Hartnett said. “In the future, if we have to take money from our till for RSVP, we’ll do that, but it would be one more unplanned burden on Friendship House.”

All RSVPs across the state are lobbying Springfield to release funding, she said. The check that arrived Thursday paid on the state’s commitment to April, 1 so payment is still in arrears.

“Whether it’s helping school districts as teacher aides or helping the Red Cross drive vehicles transporting plasma, there are any number of places people are volunteering. They work on bulk mailings. As organizations send out mailings to get more donations, the state is cutting funding to the very people organizing volunteers to do these low-cost mailings. It’s all tangled up,” Hartnett said.

RSVP’s financial bind comes, ironically, at a time the number of people interested in volunteering is increasing. As the economy drags on through the recession and more people find themselves laid off and unemployed, volunteerism at RSVP is up.

The agency has 1,200 people signed up as volunteers, with about 600 of them active. They average one to two hours of volunteerism per week, but some give 150 hours a month or more.

“Our volunteers are getting younger and younger. When a person is laid off after an active life, they tend to get involved with volunteering,” said Ashley Kinne, Peoria County coordinator with RSVP. “When active people are laid off and can’t find other jobs, many of them take early retirement and volunteer.”

Turnbull said there have been no staff cutbacks so far, but the late funding jeopardizes the organization’s ability to reimburse volunteers who use their own vehicles to do volunteer work.

“I’ve been in social service work since 1980, and this is the worst I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, it’s gotten to the point where people almost accept this as a way of life. How can we let this go on? The state needs to pay its bills,” he said.

RSVP volunteer John Holme works in the garden at Crittenton Center. He helps teach children about gardening, digging potatoes, weeding and watering.

“I’m a victim of the economy. I was laid off two years ago. I looked for other work but failed to find anything in my field,” Holme said.

He’s one of three RSVP volunteers currently at Crittenton.

“If that program is eliminated, it would really hurt,” said Jennifer Simmons, volunteer and special events coordinator at Crittenton. “We’ve used RSVP for years. We are dealing with kids, and every time something is cut, it affects everyone. For every $1 spent on kids, $8 in future costs are saved. Right now the state is hemorrhaging, and that could mean even bigger future costs.”

The domino affect is alarming, especially because Illinois is ranked No. 8 in the world in terms of highest default probabilities, Hartnett said. She cited a recent Credit Market Analysis study putting the state of Illinois ahead of Iceland and California in terms of default probabilities. Topping that list is Venezuela, Greece, Argentina and Pakistan.

“That is one of the scariest things I’ve read. A lot of states are in bad shape, but no state is ranked worse than we are. That is a pitiful status. We’re deemed more likely than California to go belly up,” Hartnett said.