to improve local communities and perform well under the new Community Reinvestment Act rules to the controversial Americorps program. Congressional Republicans want to eliminate Americorps, while President Clinton has vowed to fight for it. Regardless of what happens in Washington, the program is funded through 1996. So banks that want to can take advantage of it. Run by the Corporation for National Service, Americorps encourages people to volunteer in return for a living allowance and $4,725 in credits toward college, graduate school, or a vocational education. Americorps tries to leverage federal funding with private resources, claiming a yield of $1.60 to $2.60 in program benefits for each federal dollar spent. In the first year, Americorps sent 20,000 volunteers into 1,000 communities. The projects range from fighting drugs and closing crack houses, to immunizing infants and testing children for lead contamination, to assisting with disaster relief, to preventing erosion in national forests, to weatherizing homes for low-income people. Many initiatives directly relate to community development. On Oct. 3, the Federal Financial Institutions Examinations Council issued a letter confirming that regulators will count loans funding Americorps community development projects toward CRA's lending test for retail institutions. The loans also will count toward meeting the community development test for wholesale or limited-purpose institutions. Grants to Americorps to support community development projects count as "qualified investments" and would be considered under the "investment test" as well. Banks also can tap Americorps volunteers as a resource to do work that will enhance the value and success of a project the bank is initiating or supporting. Seventy financial companies, mostly banks and thrifts, collectively have invested nearly $1 million in Americorps programs. They range from Citicorp, Chase, and J.P. Morgan to many smaller institutions. Perhaps the most ambitious bank initiative thus far has been undertaken by First Chicago, which has gone beyond conventional community development to address issues like schools and social services. One of the First Chicago target areas contains the four poorest census tracts in the United States, with median incomes below $8,000. The bank has worked with neighborhood leaders to identify the main problems facing residents, such as the job readiness of high school graduates. In response, First Chicago established a program to recruit tellers from the school's graduating class. It also is making a $6 million loan to build the largest housing development in the area in many years. Americorps fits into this multifaceted First Chicago program in a variety of ways. Volunteers are cleaning up vacant lots. They are painting front porches for senior citizens whose homes are in redeveloping areas. They are doing landscaping and planting trees donated by private sources. Volunteers are acting as mentors for kids, teaching them a work ethic and what it takes to keep a neighborhood nice. They also are organizing and coaching a baseball team on a field donated by a local university in a gang-infested area. Mary Decker, First Chicago's vice president for community relations, credits the Americorps volunteers for much of the success. "Everyone's eyes were opened by them - the ideas doubled," she said. "There's a lot more possible than what anyone would think." Ms. Decker says the bank views these projects as both good CRA and good corporate citizenship. Barnett Banks in Florida undertook a different type of project, spearheading efforts by a group of banks to support an Americorps program focusing on law enforcement. Barnett sought involvement from Amsouth Bank, American Bank and Trust, and Bank of Pensicola, gathering contributions that ranged from just $200 to Barnett's $5,000. The funds supported volunteer activities such as work with a police substation and neighborhood watch programs. Americorps members partnered with the power company to install 58 lights in dangerous neighborhoods. They helped police eliminate problems with groups of youths intimidating customers and store owners, which had caused, for instance, a McDonald's to lock its doors during evening hours, jeopardizing its business. Harry Stump, senior vice president at Barnett Bank of West Florida in Pensacola, says the Americorps policing efforts helped stabilize the community and alleviate some of the risks associated with the bank's loans in the area. This added value to the bank's strategic business interests in the community, in addition to giving Barnett new links to the residents and businesses in the market. NationsBank also has been active with Americorps, primarily in funding the North Carolina Low Income Housing Coalition. Rodney Hood, manager of the NationsBank Initiatives Group Project, says the bank clearly gets "more bang for the buck" as a result of the energy of the Americorps volunteers, and especially from their ability to "think outside the box." The coalition has used 22 volunteers to assist 3,500 low-income people in 14 North Carolina sites through a Service for Shelter program. Activities include making minor repairs on about 250 homes and major repair on another 25, and finding affordable housing for the homeless and other low-income people. Banks that want to work with the program need to think through where the overlaps are between what Americorps brings to the table and the initiatives they plan to take. A key is to identify work that does not require specialists' skills, because the main resource brought by Americorps is willing hands and hearts. The willing hands can do cleanup/repair work, like clearing vacant lots, painting and repairing houses, removing graffiti, and planting trees. Volunteers can help with sidewalk and curb improvement for a redeveloped inner-city merchant strip. They can assist bank customers who need to use sweat equity to qualify for purchase of a home that needs improvement. The willing hearts help when the bank sees physical development as only part of what an area needs. The volunteers can take care of children while their parents attend classes on how to qualify for mortgages or how to build a fledging enterprise. They can teach entrepreneurs or school kids to use a computer. They can, as at First Chicago's project, help strengthen the cultural fabric of a redeveloping neighborhood by getting the kids involved in a sports team or after-school program while their parents go to work. If you believe, as I do, that community renewal often is less about bricks and mortar and even money than it is about effort and hope and people working together for something better, you may find Americorps a useful complement to community development financing. Banks can consider joining existing initiatives under way in virtually all cities and many smaller communities. Alternatively, they can apply to start projects of their own. Those interested in more information can start by getting a video and information package; write to the Corporation for National Service at 120 New York Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20525, or call 202-606-5000 Ms. Barefoot is president of Barefoot, Marrinan & Associates Inc.
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