BY AMY CHAUNT
When is a volunteer not a volunteer?
When they’re paid out of a $3.4 million disaster grant intended to help relieve the suffering from last year’s tornado.
At least that’s what some in Monson are saying.
“You can’t be a volunteer if you’re paid,” said Sean Dimitropolis, who is volunteering to organize the 2nd Annual Monson 5K, the Run to Rebuild on August 4.
“You’re donating to a non-profit, but they’re paid employees.”
Members of the group in question – the Monson Tornado Volunteers – are getting paid out of a National Emergency Grant was distributed by the U.S. Department of Labor last July to: “Provide temporary employment for the clean-up, renovation, reconstruction and repair of damaged and destroyed public and non-profit structures, facilities and lands located within designated disaster areas in Hampden County. In addition temporary employment will be available in humanitarian assistance jobs.”
Some in Monson question the group’s designation as a volunteer group. As the first anniversary of the June 1 tornado approached, much of the media coverage surrounding Monson’s efforts to rebuild centered on the “volunteer” nature of the community and the willingness of many to come together and help each other.
Wendy Deshais, a Palmer resident and the head of the Monson Tornado Volunteers, is one of 122 employees who is working and getting paid under the grant. Deshais sees little issue with the pay-for-volunteering arrangement.
“We call it, (Monson Tornado Volunteers) because we coordinate volunteers that come into town, we help the volunteers that come into town,” she said. “We take care of the volunteers.”
“They were hoping to get tornado victims to take these jobs to help them out, that was the goal originally,” said Jo Sauriol, a Monson resident and the administrator of the Monson Tornado Watch 2011 Facebook Group.
“I don’t think they found enough of those (victims), so with any grant, you don’t use it, you lose it.”
Karen King, the face and voice of the Monson tornado recovery movement and founder of “Street Angels” is aggravated with the fact that the Monson Tornado Volunteers are getting paid.
“Well I think one of the problems is the fact that since they have been hired, they can’t do work on private property, like homes,“ King said. “They can only work on public property and it ends up tying their hands in a way and therefore a lot of work hasn’t come in since January.”
“A couple of people who approached me wondered why the volunteers dropped off the face of the earth,” said King. “And when they found out they were paid they were just surprised.”
Melissa Scibelli, project manager of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, the group that distributed the grant, confirmed that the Monson Tornado Volunteers can only work on public and non profit property under the grant.
However, it’s unclear whether the 122 employees are being tracked for their work and how much money each “volunteer” is receiving. Only five of the eight Monson Tornado Volunteers are getting the full $12,000 because the others couldn’t continue the grant for personal reasons.
“It wasn’t criteria for us to track every employee,” said Scibelli.
Deshais defends her work, saying she was unemployed for more than 15 weeks and qualified for the grant. Once the grant money ends, Deshais plans to live off of unemployment and continue doing what she’s doing now.
“Nobody’s stepping up to fill our shoes, that’s what it’s coming down to there’s nobody to
take our place,” she said.
To qualify under the grant guidelines, people had to be “low income” and unemployed for at least 15 weeks. The grant allocated $1.9 million for 122 temporary jobs for participants including wages, fringe and support services. The remainder of the grant breaks down as follows:
* $400,000 allocated for staff intake, counseling and worksite development and
* $330,000 allocated for career counseling and technical training;
* $175,000 allocated for administration;
* The remaining $595,000 is given to the state.
Yet there is little tornado-related work happening with the $330,000 allocated for technical training and career counseling.
“It could be anything from resume building to going to excel training classes,” said Scibelli in explaining what happens with career counseling. “A lot of people we were working with don’t even have resumes up to date.”
Gail Morrissey, a member of the Street Angels, and a victim of the June 1 tornado, is upset with what has been happening around the town. She lived in an apartment Washington Street in Monson and was home when the tornado hit her apartment building. Ever since, she has been relocated.
“I am the only volunteer who was in the tornado and that’s the difference” she said. “So when I see things not being done the right way, I take offense to that.”
According to Allison DiPesa Hill, another member of the Monson Tornado Volunteers, residents of the community told her that she should be getting paid for all that she’s doing for the town. And now that she is getting paid, it’s backfiring on them.
“I’ve been biting my tongue and it’s gotten to a point where were being made to look like bad guys and now all of a sudden everything we’re doing is not enough and horrible, it’s frustrating, it’s really frustrating,” said DiPesa Hill.
“We gave up our lives to do this, and it certainly wasn’t done to get credit for it, I did it cause it was the right thing to do, but it just seems like were competing with the people who want the credit.”
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About the authors
Students in Steve Fox's Investigative Journalism & the Web class at UMass-Amherst have teamed up with the Globe to take a close-up look at the painful process of rebuilding from the June 2011 tornadoes that killed four and devastated communities in the Springfield area. Their work will also appear in the Boston Globe. Steve joined the journalism faculty at UMass-Amherst in 2007 and has 25 years of experience as an editor and reporter for print and online publications, including 10 as an editor at The Washington Post's award-winning website.