Thomas Bryer, a professor of public administration and program director of the Office of Downtown Community Engaged Scholarship, received more than $73,000 as a planning grant from Volunteer Florida to assist communities economically and financially impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. He will address the issues by launching an AmeriCorps program at UCF.

“COVID-19 has revealed the ugly underbelly of Orlando. This program will give us a chance to help fix it,” says Bryer.

“COVID-19 has revealed the ugly underbelly of Orlando. This program will give us a chance to help fix it.” — Professor Thomas Bryer

Bryer says the future AmeriCorps program would deploy full-time volunteers to nonprofit and community-based organizations around Orlando “to enhance service delivery to those most in need economically and those who can best benefit through greater access to educational achievement and an educational opportunity.”

Volunteer Florida, a state-level agency that’s affiliated with the federal-level Corporation for National Community Service, manages all of the state’s AmeriCorps programs, which are the domestic equivalent of the international Peace Corps.

Although the organization awards two planning grants each year, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic this year led Volunteer Florida to “allocate funding specifically for communities and their response efforts,” explains Savannah Kelly, the organization’s external affairs director. Grant recipients also receive technical assistance and support to help them manage a future AmeriCorps program.

“What the COVID-19 economy has demonstrated very clearly for us is that a significant percentage of our population is on the edge of homelessness, on the edge of bankruptcy, on the edge of hunger — that’s not going to disappear once the pandemic has resolved itself,” continues Bryer. “By applying and leveraging AmeriCorps resources, we will be able to put sustained and long-term effort into pushing boundaries and enhancing service capacity to help those individuals and lift them up in so many ways.”

One of the first steps of the planning is speaking with almost 20 organizations in Orlando to identify which ones would benefit from having AmeriCorps members, explains Bryer. The volunteers would be placed at organizations that need extra help to expand their services or offerings to the community. In addition to working with UCF Downtown, Bryer and the UCF College of Community Innovation and Education are also partnering with Valencia College, the city of Orlando and Heart of Florida United Way.

Other details include assessing how many volunteers are needed and available within a given year — Bryer hopes for around 50 — and the budgetary requirements to host the program. Ultimately, the goal of the next year is to learn how the group of institutions and city of Orlando would launch and successfully sustain an AmeriCorps program based at the College of Community Innovation and Education’s downtown location.

Another aspect of the planning grant is figuring out the details and logistics for the academic portion of the AmeriCorps program: the 2+1+2 program. Students would complete two years at Valencia College, take a gap year to become a full-time volunteer, then finish their degree at UCF. Although this kind of program isn’t new to colleges, it would be new to UCF and Valencia College’s partnership. The students who volunteer in the AmeriCorps program would receive both a stipend and educational award for future tuition.

“We have a tremendous human capital resource through Valencia and UCF students that we can leverage to really help these organizations enhance their service capacities,” says Bryer. “Volunteerism and diverse people working toward a common goal is the kind of thing that can lead to enhancement of empathy and transformation of values, which then spreads. The process, I believe, would fundamentally transform the kinds of commitments our students will have. It would transform the kinds of conversations that happen in our classrooms. It provides a new opportunity for a generation of students to study in ways they wouldn’t have been able to before.”