Grateful. Impactful. Hopeful.
Supported by a grant from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, United Way of Berks County continues to inspire and create impact through strategic grant awards and community-centered investments. Read on to learn how 2022 investments in education, health, workforce development and housing stability are changing lives in our community.
Future dollars committed
Innovative and impactful education-centered initiatives
Kindergarten readiness, grade-level literacy proficiency, preparing our future workforce – our Ready.Set.READ! initiative focuses on these issues and more through key programs:
Growing Readers improves kindergarten readiness by partnering with City-based childcare centers and increases the skills of and retains Early Childhood Educators. In partnership with Reading Area Community College, we prepare ECEs to obtain their Childhood Development Associate (CDA), a nationally recognized credential.
200+ trained volunteers tutor first and second graders in 28 elementary schools to build reading skills through the Star Readers Program.
In partnership with Read Alliance, first grade students are paired with high school students four days a week to focus on reading. High school students gain skills through this leadership and paid work experience, and elementary students achieve measurable progress in reading skills.
Read With Me partners with elementary classrooms to share books and promotes family reading.
Local leaders from neighborhoods, nonprofits and other community organizations are working together to ask questions and learn. Through community conversations, we are learning about aspirations parents, grandparents, teachers, teens and community members have for our children, their education and safety. The Institute is guiding local efforts through training, coaching and learning labs to create and support meaningful change in areas of early childhood education, ESL and out-of-school programming. Partnering with United Way of Berks County to support this initiative is Berks Alliance, Centro Hispano and The Wyomissing Foundation.
“Read Alliance is one of the best things I ever experienced. It provided me and other teen leaders the opportunity to be around younger children to be able to feel what it’s like to be a teacher. We could see how much we grew and how we overcame barriers of language and shyness.”
Innovative and impactful Workforce development-centered initiatives
Berks Connections Pretrial Services
The Reentry Works program puts reentrants to work. Individualized plans are developed for reentrants to secure and retain employment. Many of the clients experience barriers beyond a criminal record – poverty, unstable housing, substance abuse disorders, and lack of family and community support. This expansion of BCPS programming is good for the reentrants, their families, their employers and our economy.
Berks Tec Centro
The Berks Latino Workforce Development Corporation (BLWDC) or “Berks Tec Centro,” was established to help job seekers face barriers preventing them from qualifying for job openings, including the lack of English language competency, academic skills, high school diploma or occupational skills. In its first 15 months of operation, and in partnership with Reading Area Community College, BLWDC has served over 390 participants of diverse backgrounds. They recently launched the Certified Nurse Assistant (CNA) program in October, graduating nine of the ten participants, with the remaining participant already enrolled in the second class.
Gateway to the Workplace
6.7% of Reading’s population is Latino. 36% of households have adults with limited English speaking ability, which is often a barrier to gainful employment. The Reading Area Community College and Literacy Council of Reading-Berks are partnering with manufacturing companies to help English Language Learner employees by providing customized ESL and numeracy classes. The program also provides non-Spanish speaking supervisors with beginner Spanish for workplace communications to support onboarding and safety for ESL employees.
A Second Chance
While Kayla M. never heard of United Way or philanthropist, MacKenzie Scott, she is grateful their combined support in creating a second chance for her. She is a recent reentrant and participates in the BCPS Reentry Works Program, funded by United Way Berks County utilizing a gift from MacKenzie Scott.
Kayla has an individualized plan to support her journey to gain employable skills in a trade. Logan Albrecht, her BCPS Caseworker, describes Kayla as focused and hardworking. “She is enrolled in the welding program and is continuing her education. I’m proud of her; she’s coming out of her shell and helps other participants in the program with computer skills.”
Kayla’s believes, “Second chances are not given to make things right but are given to prove that we could be better even after we fall.”
United Way is proud to help BCPS provide more second chance opportunities by supporting program expansion. To date, 67 clients have been given second chances. BCPS values the uniqueness and flexibility of the United Way grant. “Our typical grants have very specific criteria which has caused us to turn away people in the past. This grant allows us to help anyone justice-involved…opening the door to more people. That’s a game changer,” says Jessica Nunez, Reentry Services Director.
Innovative and impactful health-centered initiatives
Berks Counseling Center
The pandemic sparked greater mental health and emotional struggles for youth. Between 2019 and 2021, the Center’s treatment of children increased by 48% with continued growth this year.
The grant allowed the center to expand staff and establish an intensive Outpatient Program to include health/wellness activities with a focus on family engagement in treatment, providing the support needed to serve more children.
The LGBT Center of Greater Reading
Advancing multi-cultural impact and expanding resources to support a multi-pronged program around counseling, physical health and food/personal hygiene needs, the Center is the only area organization providing inclusively-led services directly to the LGBT community.
Penn State Health St. Joseph's Healthy Food Store
Fighting food insecurity and diet-related health issues by expanding the Veggie RX Program, which allowed medical and clinical staff to prescribe vouchers for fresh produce to address health concerns and to build a more permanent retail location as an urban Healthy Food Store for city residents. The site will offer affordable produce, as well as nonperishable and dried goods. The store removes transportation, income and affordable access barriers.
Working with Harwood to create ripples of change in Reading
In 2021, The Walton Family Foundation funded a partnership between Harwood and Centro Hispano to create a community-driven agenda focused on education and to strengthen the community’s capacity to act on that agenda. A report “Reading Thriving Together, A New Agenda for Education and the Community” was shared at the end of the year.
In June 2022, 50 community and nonprofit leaders dedicated two days to attend a public innovator training lab facilitated by Harwood Institute. The purpose of lab was to equip community leaders to own and act on three of the community-driven agenda items: early childhood education, English as a Second Language, and after/out-of-school programs. Each agenda item is supported by teams identified at the lab.
Since June, the teams have been “turning outward” to gain public knowledge by holding community conversations with Reading residents. Community conversations are designed to have meaningful discussions with small groups of residents to understand their personal aspirations for the community where they live and their ideas about making positive change. So far, public knowledge has been gained from teenagers, college students, school faculty, parents, grandparents, ESL students.
In November, the three teams reunited for a session facilitated by Harwood to reflect, refresh and reenergize.
- Reflection – included celebrating the small wins beginning to create ripple effects around turning outward. Small wins included: new people joining the effort; teaming up with new people/organizations to gain public knowledge; local leaders/organizations utilizing the tools to “turn outward” with their clients, staff and community to be more inclusive and to practice the art of “doing with…not to”.
- Refresh- reminded us of our why and the tools to help us turn outward. The time was utilized to revisit skills needed to overcome challenges and to gain the public knowledge critical to moving forward.
- Reenergize – each team developed and signed a covenant with action steps and timeline to continue the practice through additional community conversations. The team pledged to stay true to learning from the community and to understand what actually matters to people when it comes to early childhood education, English as a Second Language, and after/out-of-school programs. We will use community conversations to develop new allies for change and to build interest from community members to be involved in the change they want to see.
The common thread from community conversations, so far, everyone wants safe and clean space to raise their families. We also learned that members of the community want more opportunities to learn and play for every member of their family.
Following the completion of this round of community conversations, each team will develop action steps based on the public knowledge around community member aspirations and concerns.
Grant supporting gateway to stability program
Winter adds additional challenges for people who are homeless. Families without stable housing having many challenges and are among the most underserved in Berks County. They are often further traumatized when they are forced to separate due to a lack of shelters available to accommodate a family unit. Berks Coalition to End Homelessness (BCEH) created a program, Gateway to Stability, to serve families with children with safe, clean, emergency shelter in hotel rooms for up to 28 days. While in the program, the families receive intensive support to work towards permanent housing. Last year, the program served 118 people.
Gateway to Stability was funded by the PA Homeless Assistance Program through COVID-specific funding which increased a normal 10 day allowance to a 28-day stay instead. The allowance expired and 10 days is just not enough time to find a stable solution for families, particularly with the limited availability of affordable and habitable housing.
United Way of Berks County is funding the continuation of the Gateway to Stability program to serve families for an additional 12-month period. The grant will cover the temporary housing expenses for families and was recently relaunched in November 2022 to align with the winter Code Blue season.
• Providing more emergency shelter nights
• Fighting barriers around stable housing
• Serving more families for an additional 12-month period
The Impact Continues
- Seeding strategic program investment
- Sparking innovation and collaboration
- Expanding impact and equity