A new state law requiring state and federal background checks for schools, churches and nonprofits that rely on volunteers to work alongside children was greeted with both praise and questions by local nonprofits.

To Beginnings Inc.’s Paula Eppley-Newman, it’s a long overdue move.

But Learning Lamp Director Leah Spangler pointed to a list of her nonprofit’s approximately 120 volunteers – many times “moms and dads” – who often spend time reading or helping children at the Bedford Street location and wondered how they’ll afford what could be a nearly $50 cost for each of them.

“That quickly adds up,” she said, noting folks donating their time may find the application fee expensive. “That’s $6,000 we don’t have in our budget.”

The requirement is part of an ammendment to Pennsylvania’s Child Protective Services Law.

Crafted by state leaders in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, it’s part of a package of measures aimed at bolstering child protection efforts.

Windber Area Superintendent Rick Huffman said the district expected “needed” changes were on the way. But some were expected and others – like the background checks for volunteers – “kinda slipped in there.”

“It’s a good idea because student safety is the No. 1 priority,” he said. “But it would’ve been nice to have a chance to prepare for this.”

Some school district leaders and nonprofits statewide have complained about the hassle of implementing the changes, saying it means figuring out how to oversee and maintain the growing database of records that the law requires.

For Windber Area, it’s likely going to mean added work for staff already busy with daily tasks, Huffman said. School officials are working out those details.

Spangler said the Learning Lamp will “absolutely follow the new standards,” adding, “we need to do everything in our power to protect the children we serve.”

Still, while the Learning Lamp screens its paid employees with state and federal background checks, “I don’t see how we’ll be able to pick up the cost for every single volunteer we have,” she said.

“And asking someone volunteering their time and energy to pay for it ... might be a bit much. It could really create a challenge to find volunteers,” she said.

But Eppley-Newman said the cost, which could be as low as $20, is a small investment considering it could protect the life of a child.

“Even for a volunteer, we’re just talking about skipping on a few days’ worth of Starbucks coffee,” she said.

Beginnings Inc., formed to provide early intervention services to kids in need, often has 30 to 40 volunteers at any given time, Eppley-Newman said.

Each receives paid training and have been screened through state and federal background checks since Beginnings Inc. first started relying on them as court-appointed special advocates for children years ago.

“Anything we can do to protect our children, we need to do as a society,” she said.

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst.

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