By Misty Volaski
Senior volunteers across the valley got a letter from Help of Ojai dated Nov. 15, announcing the end of the long-running Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) as of Dec. 31. Help’s executive director Terri Wolfe explained that this was due to lack of — and the potential elimination of — funding from the Corporation for National and Community Service. CNCS has supplied grant money to operate Ojai’s “clearing house” for senior volunteer opportunities for close to 20 years, and has a national budget of about $1 billion, making it a target for possible elimination by Congress. It also runs the SeniorCorps and AmeriCorps organizations.
Wolfe said the ending of the RSVP program is certainly not something Help of Ojai would have chosen to do if these were ideal financial times, but that to keep it running would have required thousands of dollars that Help just doesn’t have.
“In this time of change for all agencies receiving federal funding, we have to adapt to those changes,” she said. “And our objective in adapting is to have a minimum impact on our direct services to our clients — seniors, low income, the homeless.”
“We’re not ‘cutting’ RSVP,” Wolfe emphasized, “we’re just not able to increases our expenses” to cover the costs of the program which are no longer covered by CNCS. In the letter to local volunteers, Wolfe says, “This change should not adversely impact your work within your particular program.”
Wolfe said that when Help of Ojai’s board first caught wind of the federal budget reductions CNCS had to undergo earlier this year, they began to ask the various organizations that work with RSVP volunteers — like the Ojai Valley Community Hospital and about 14 others around the valley — whether they felt that the closing of RSVP would affect them negatively. “We asked for their input on reduction or elimination of the program,” Wolfe said, “and they said it wouldn’t impact them because they knew their volunteers were committed to their organizations, and they felt confident that they would continue to volunteer” whether or not RSVP existed.
“I think RSVP sort of legitimized what they (the volunteers) did, but it’s not why they volunteered,” said Chris Rock, executive director of the Ojai Valley Community Hospital Foundation, which has about 25 to 30 volunteers, most of whom are seniors. “Many of our volunteers are longtime volunteers, and I don’t think the program (RSVP) going away is going to change that.”
RSVP helps coordinate the organizations needing volunteers and tracks the hours of volunteers, which it then submits to the federal government to keep the grant going. “When it first started, the program was to encourage seniors to go out and volunteer in the community,” Wolfe explained. “RSVP was, decades ago, a catalyst for the (volunteer) movement. The good news is, it’s really taken on a life of its own. Volunteering is alive and well and thriving in the Ojai Valley. We’re confident that they’ll still volunteer.”
“That’s what Ojai runs on, that volunteer spirit,” said RSVP volunteer and OVN columnist Mel Bloom. “Many things would close down if it weren’t for volunteers.”
Despite the confidence voiced about the continuation of volunteerism in Ojai, Help of Ojai still looked at several other options to keep RSVP, said Wolfe. CNCS changed the way it looked at the grant period, which increased from 12 months to 15 months. That meant that sponsoring organizations, like Help of Ojai, would have been required to fill in the three-month funding gap with their own funds, something Wolfe said wasn’t possible. “That would be $15,000 for us, on the tails of our busiest time of year, and the end of the year — it would be a huge burden.” Help investigated the option of simply putting the program “on hold” for those three months, but CNCS doesn’t allow this option.
Further, even if Help of Ojai had the $15,000 to fund that three-month gap, “There’s no guarantee that there would be grant money come March or April,” Wolfe said. “Is there even going to be a program? We don’t know. We could end up continuing a program that might end up being eliminated anyway.”
The biggest regret to the ending of the RSVP program, Wolfe said, was that there was no longer funding to keep the RSVP director, Kathleen Tarrats. “That’s a great loss to us,” Wolfe said. “She’s a great champion of seniors. She’s done a really remarkable job of connecting with seniors. We’ve offered her a part-time job with Help and we hope she accepts the position.”
Bloom echoed her enthusiasm. “Kathleen has been very effective there for years,” he said. “And she’s a very neat human being.”
Volunteer opportunities still abound in Ojai. Contact Help of Ojai at 646-5122 for more information.