Berks County is home to 73 municipalities. They range in population from 35 people (New Morgan Borough) to over 80,000 (Reading).
It’d be hard to find anyone who thought that, in theory, it made sense to have 73 separate municipalities doing all the things they do (police protection, zoning, codes enforcement, recreation,etc.). It just doesn’t make sense from any perspective other than an historical one.
Context is important. Pennsylvania is home to about 11% of all the municipalities in the United States. We have, along with Illinois an odd and unexplainable affinity for having lots of small, inefficient government.
So, why is it still so? With voters clamoring for government to limit spending, why maintain the overhead of a bunch of duplicative little municipalities?
But still, a lot of local governments.
One reason that we probably haven’t moved more aggressively toward the consolidation of municipal services is that there’s not a good vehicle to do it. And by that, I mean our current form of county government.
At least some of the problems are statutory. Exploration by the county commissioners a few years ago of opportunities to regionalize police services pointed out that Pennsylvania law doesn’t allow counties to create police forces. That took one logical option off of the table.
There are non-statutory issues as well. It’s interesting to note that county government could do lots of other things but doesn’t. And it might not matter how many municipalities there were if the county provided a broader range of municipal services.
One big problem is the form of government. It wasn’t really designed to provide municipal services; it was designed to provide a very limited number of things like jails, a county nursing home and maybe maintain some bridges. Without a clearly identified chief executive who’s responsible, County government is an amalgam of “run by committee” functions that don’t inspire much confidence.
Maybe it’s time to rethink the way we’ve structured municipal government from top to bottom. If taxpayers want better services delivered less expensively, it’s worth a look.
Last week, the Reading Eagle ran an editorial calling for the study of a home rule form of government for Berks County. Given what we know, it’s hard to come up with a good reason not to at least consider our options.
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As Carl Spackler said in Caddyshack:
“In the immortal words of Jean Paul Sartre, 'Au revoir, gopher.' “
Now, everybody in our building knows that the one thing you don’t do is make a mess outside of our building. Our very capable Senior Vice President for Finance and Operations Franki Aitken runs a tight ship and takes great pride in keeping the building looking sharp.
Last week, an as-yet unnamed groundhog decided that the retaining wall in the back of the building would be a good home. And, from a strictly groundhog perspective, that might be right. But Franki doesn’t really see things from a groundhog’s point of view (she is a fanatic dog lover) so the situation our new tenant created isn’t going to work!
Rather than have Ms. Spackler….er, I mean Aitken, attempt to use dynamite, we’ve asked our friends at J.C. Ehrlich to come out, trap the groundhog and relocate him to some nearby woodlands.
We’ll let you know how it goes. But just in case, if you see water spouting out of holes around the building over the weekend, please let me know.
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Throughout the week members of the Community Foundation's Youth Advisory Committee will serve as guest bloggers for the President's Journal, providing their unique insight about the exchange.
Guest Blogger: Carver Murphy, Tulpehocken Senior
Most of our last two days were filled with goodbyes and travel. In this we still managed to have a particularly Russian experience.
We woke up Sunday morning ready to begin our journey home. After a quick breakfast at the hotel in Ivanovo, the American, Northern Irish, and Togliatti delegations piled in a van (thankfully one that had air-conditioning, something we found lacking throughout the trip) to go back to Moscow.
The van ride home proved long and exhausting. However, we continued our Russian experience by stopping at a roadside stand for lunch. Some of the YACsters bought a snack from a little Old Russian woman that was recommended to us by our Russian counter parts. It was a delicious traditional meal that consisted of a doughy pocket filled with meat, potatoes, rice, egg, etc.
When we arrived in Moscow, at the Cosmos hotel, we made plans to meet our Russian friends in Red square for dinner. First, we were going to going last minute souvenir shopping. After McQuillin (who acted as the trip’s trusty souvenir negotiator) negotiated some more sales, we went off in the pouring rain to meet our Russian friends at the hard rock café in Moscow. After all of the very traditional Russian food we ate in Ivanovo, the American kids were, needless to say, in dire straits for American food. Most of us ordered very large cheeseburgers.
On our way home from dinner on Old Arbot Skaya, we dealt with more pouring rain (by now all of us were soaked and none of us were happy) and unfortunately began our goodbyes. As we rode the metro many of our friends had to take different routes to get where they were staying. As we said goodbye it occurred that we will most likely never see each other again although many of us will stay in touch through social media. The symbolism of each of us taking our separate paths in the metro, as well as in real life, strikes me as very powerful. Our last goodbyes were said in the lobby of the Hotel cosmos to Yura, Costya, and Anatasia.
The final day of our trip we woke up early in the morning to get breakfast before we had to leave. Our van ride to the airport was uneventful but when we arrived there we were disheartened to see that our flight was delayed from 11:30 to 2:30. Alas, there was nothing we could do about it so we waited for our plane. This plane ride was particularly brutal for some of our YACsters and their chaperones as they had fallen ill on the trip. Everyone made it home to the airport and after a long ride to Reading we reunited with our family. We said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.
This entire trip, I think, has been about coming together, learning from one another, and taking those lessons with us on our separate journeys. The YACsters will certainly cross paths with each other again and through this trip have formed a special friendship. We may never see our Russian friends again. Regardless, we are certain that we have counterparts, colleagues, and most of all, friends halfway around the world.
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Throughout the week members of the Community Foundation's Youth Advisory Committee will serve as guest bloggers for the President's Journal, providing their unique insight about the exchange.
Guest Blogger: Yani Najarian, 2012 Lancaster Country Day School Graduate
On the second and final day of the conference, we woke up to a surprisingly satisfying breakfast of eggs shaped into squares, bread and apricot jam! The jam was definitely the highlight of the meal as our table cleaned out the basket of samples and McQuillin enjoying three packets to accompany his slices of bread.
One of our first activities today was a mock press conference for YAC. Our small group of six sat behind a long table facing about 15 Russian kids eager to learn about our committee. We started with a brief summary and history of YAC then answered the many questions that came our way. Every member was able to speak at least once and Mr. Murphy definitely caught enough pictures of Emma for an entire photo album. The press conference was a success as we were able to get our goals and beliefs across to everyone in the room.
After our press conference, we enjoyed a delicious lunch of soup and chicken. Finally, some comfort food we love! After a brief nap in our rooms, we headed back to the conference to finish our work. Each Youth Bank was assigned six small tasks to be completed in thirty minutes. These ranged from answering questions about a small story to a few of us asking Russians for money. Carver and McQuillin used their charm to raise about 220 rubles which is close to 8 dollars. After we completed our fun little tasks, we presented to all the adults in the conference what we completed in these two days. It was easy to talk to them since the room was filled with our creations of posters and pictures. We were all able to squeeze in a few sentences to describe these two days. It turned out to be a great conference and I can speak for all of us when I say that I really enjoyed it and definitely learned new tools to bring home with me.
After our conference ended, we went on a fairly long bus ride touring the mysterious city of Ivanovo. It was only a little difficult to understand everything since the tour guide only spoke in Russian, well, very fast Russian. We just sat and enjoyed the ride, not worrying about the fact we had no idea what we were actually seeing. Once we returned back to our hotel we were happy to sit down for a nice dinner of fish (haddock I believe) and scalloped potatoes.
I sure am tired from a long and eventful day. However, a few of us might be making a late night ice cream run tonight. So a sugar rush may be exactly what we need to leave Ivanovo the fun way.
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Throughout the week members of the Community Foundation's Youth Advisory Committee will serve as guest bloggers for the President's Journal, providing their unique insight about the exchange.
Guest Blogger: McQuillin Murphy, Tulphehocken Senior
On the first day of the Youth Bank Conference, we awoke ready for a new day, in a new place, with new people and challenges. After first listening to the opening remarks, we YACsters were quick to move into the next room to begin our task of being “brilliantly disruptive”, working together, learning together, and developing a unique international friendship.
Vernon Ringland, who ran the Youth Conference, thrust us immediately into the activities. Like most meeting or conferences where no one knows each other, we were given an icebreaker. We were to tell our group of three or four people (mixing Russians and Americans) several things, such as our names or our hobbies. Pretty simple stuff. Then, we were to tell each other something that appeared just as simple, but held much more depth in its meaning:
The history of our shoes.
Where did we get our shoes? There’s more in that question than would appear at first. Our shoes can tell a story; they will say where we have been and will take us where we are going. Through this question, we can see from the start that these Russian kids whose language, culture, foods, and fashions we don’t fully understand are not much different from us at all. I bought my shoes at a shoe store and so did Yura. So did Elvira. So did Anastasia. They are not strange, just different. This day would, after all, become an exposure of the differences between YAC and the Russians’ Molodyozhniy Banks.
So, with the similarities of our shoes in mind, we set out to discover our similarities and differences. Vernon gave each group (the groups were divided by Youth Bank/YAC) 16 color-coded cards, containing distinct steps in the annual process of the Youth Banks/YAC. We were to order our cards depending on how our own organization proceeded yearly. Of four groups, not one was even close to the same. We could see just based on how the colors did not match up how different our groups were. Later, we would even learn that, while YAC gives $15,000 in grants each year, the Penza Youth Bank can only give $500 USD. These sorts of differences were becoming apparent from the very start.
Our next activity was to illustrate the Youth Bank Golden Rules. These were nine statements or ideas that are uniform across our organizations. They are the similarities to compliment our differences. They state that Youth Banks/YACs must be:
These similarities are a necessary framework to use toward understanding our differences.
Next we took a trip through the Japanese culture by using PechaKucha, a technique in which a presenter describes a picture in concise detail for a mere 20 seconds. When you think about it, most speeches are about 20 seconds of useful information repeated for extremely tedious amounts of time. Our pictures were mostly motivational images that we related to our organizations, exposing aspects of ourselves we never noticed or wanted to focus on more.
After PechaKucha, we held a fashion show….of sorts. Vernon gave us large white overalls, the kind that people wear in a chemical plant to cover everything from their heads to their ankles. We spent the next hour or so decorating them with markers. On our overalls, we depicted Reading, the pagoda, the railroad, and the buildings. Into this depiction of our community, we incorporated past grants, such as Mother’s Voice, the Growing Center, Studio B, and Spectrum. As a group, we explained and compared our grants to the grants of Russian Youth Banks, which we so wonderfully displayed in rambunctious catwalk exhibition just minutes before.
These were just a few of the activities that our Youth Advisory Committee did with the Youth Bank kids from across Russia. Hopefully, the brief descriptions provided can serve as a window to our friendship building, our barrier crossing, and our mutual learning. We are kids who do not share a culture, or a language. We do not share a process in grantmaking, or even a theme we address in our communities. However, we shared a love for these communities and a desire to improve them. We came together in a place far from all of our homes to learn together about philanthropy and how to improve our philanthropic skills. For today, we wore the same shoes.
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We don’t usually use this space for personal news, but since the Community Foundation’s efforts and some personal news collided, we thought we’d share some of both.
Of course, many people in our community are aware of reports in the Reading Eagle that my wife, Kim, was involved in a serious car accident last Thursday (July 5). A car traveling in the opposite direction crossed into her lane, resulting in a head-on collision. Kim sustained more injuries than we originally thought, but none are life threatening. She continues to convalesce at the Reading Hospital for Post Acute Rehabilitation and is expected to return home by the end of the month. We are so grateful for the many expressions of support and caring for Kim. At this point, we ask only for your thoughts and prayers on behalf of the other driver, whose injuries were more serious.
Now, Russia and Kim’s accident come together to create the obvious question: What kind of husband would leave his wife in the hospital four days after a serious car crash? The answer: An obedient one.
Kim was adamant from the first minutes after the accident that we were to move forward with this trip as scheduled. She knew that the YAC members (including our own sons) were excited to visit Russia and that her family and some friends could take care of her needs in Reading. And she was right. She’s been well supported during our absence.
Although disobeying Kim is not something I do normally, the Community Foundation staff did call the travel agency (Boscov's Travel - they are excellent, by the way) to determine what the consequences of canceling the trip would be (forfeiture of all but my family's payments). They also contacted the agency that issues Russian visas to try to get an emergency visa for another staff member or parent to accompany the group. The minimum turnaround time was six days, which we didn't have. The agency recommended that we go to the Russian Consulate in New York in person to make the special request, but they were closing in an hour and wouldn't reopen until after our fights had departed.
With limited options, and Kim's blessing, we decided to move forward with the trip.
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Guest Blogger: Emma Thornton, Wyomissing Sophomore
Today we drove to Ivanovo, the city that is hosting our Youth Bank Conference. We were told nothing about the city of Ivanovo, or the drive, which was estimated at about 4 hours. It ended up taking almost twice as long, but strangely, we didn't mind.
While I loved the city-culture in Moscow, I was hoping to see the Russian countryside that I had previously heard of. The drive to Ivanovo was a perfect example. We must've driven through at least 150 miles of farmland, which was breathtaking and refreshing, compared to the griminess in cities. Whereas Moscow contained thousands of citizens, the farmland had miles of open air.
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Guest Blogger: Erin Feryo, Exeter Sophomore
Today is the second day we have been in Moscow. We visited so many historical sites so far! Everything here is so interesting, especially since I just studied the Second World War in school.
On our tour today with Elena, we saw Red Square, Sparrow Hills, GUM, Moscow University, Cathedral of Christ our Savior, Stalin's Seven Sisters, St. Basil's Cathedral, the tombs of both Lenin and Stalin, and the Kremlin. My favorite spots were the Kremlin and St.Basil's Cathedral by far! They were both extremely interesting and beautiful. I can't believe that St. Basil's Cathedral has survived all these years with so many orders to be torn down! I learned today that Stalin actually ordered for it to be torn down. In addition to St. Basil's Cathedral, I really enjoyed the Kremlin. I thought it was so neat that I had the opportunity to tour the Russian President's headquarters! I mean, how many people actually have that kind of opportunity!?!?
Russia is completely different from what I expected! What did I expect? I expected Russia to be like an older society with everything being very plain. I thought Russia would be kind of creepy and secretive, almost like a spy novel. In reality, it is a beautiful place that has so many interesting buildings and monuments. Being in Moscow is such a great experience! It is so fascinating to be in a place where so many important historical figures are from!
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Guest Blogger: Hannah Mellott, Boyertown Sophomore
Well what a start off on this adventure! The car ride to the airport was long - I think our driver took the longest route there and drove like 25 mph. Then we got to the airport, got checked in and through security. We were all hungry so we got lunch and then went to our gate to board.
I was first in line, and the gate lady told me I needed a stamp on my boarding pass, um what? I had no clue, but no one else had a stamp so I wasn't alone. All we had to do was go back to the desk and get a stamp on our boarding pass. As we're waiting there's this bell going off, like a real bell as if we were in a boxing ring, then at the same time two of the cars that drive people around the airport were trying to pass each other and they kept beeping their horns. It sounded like Grand Central Station, and Kevin happened to be on the phone with someone so it just added on how ridiculous and hilarious it was.
But after that we got on the plane and in our seats. I happened be sitting next to someone I didn't know. Well this girl was Russian and spoke no English. She was with a big group of other people who were also Russian.
Wow Russia is so beautiful! I'm having the time of my life!
We were out of the airport at around 11:00 and went to our hotel. We checked in and decided we all needed showers desperately so we decided to meet in the lobby at 1:30. Erin and I got ready quickly so we went and asked Yani and Emma if they wanted to come but they weren't ready yet so we went and asked Carver and McQuillin but Quill was in the shower still so Carver came with us.
We got down to the lobby and got our money exchanged and we waited for everyone else. All the kids were ready before Kevin and Sarah. We got some lunch at the hotel, then we started our walking adventure!
We went everywhere: to the Expo Center across the street and St. Basil's, we looked at the Kremlin and went into GUM (a shopping mall) and walked down Tversakaya Street. We ended up going to an Irish pub for dinner because we couldn't find any good Russian restaurants and we thought the pub would be reliable Well I think we sat in there for at least 2 hours waiting for food. Carver and Emma fell asleep mainly because they had been up for about 25 hours, but the good thing about the wait was that there was wifi so we were all able to text for free in wifi. After we all eventually got our food we were going to shop but we were all dead tired so we decided to do it tomorrow.
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July 4, 2012 - On Monday, I will head to Russia with six students from our award-winning Youth Advisory Committee and their advisor, Sarah MacAusland. While we’re there, we’ll attend the Annual Conference of the Russian Community Foundation Partnership and our students will attend a simultaneous meeting of the Russian Youth Banks (which are the YAC equivalent).
I’m also scheduled to have lunch with the board of directors of the Russian Donors Forum, run by my good friend Natalia Kaminarskaya who was, ironically, in Berks County just a few weeks ago to visit and learn about our work.
So, why Russia? What are we hoping to accomplish taking high school students to a meeting in Ivanovo?
Students who participate in our YAC program are getting a full exposure to the world of community philanthropy. In addition to actively grantmaking, they raise funds and volunteer in the community. Because the world of community philanthropy is no longer centered entirely in the United States, we think it’s an amazing add-on to expose them to global philanthropy.
They also bring back new ideas for our YAC. This year’s conference for the Youth Banks will be run by Vernon Ringland, who started the Youth Bank movement in Northern Ireland and has now replicated his success around the world. Vernon is one of the great community foundation leaders in the world, and will surely make the visit exciting.
So we’re off to Moscow (where the students will go sight-seeing, including a visit to the Kremlin) and Ivanovo. Watch this space next week as we invite, for the first time, “guest bloggers” and have the kids share their impressions of what they’re learning.
An interesting side note about our Russia trips: Kit Mellott, one of first students to go with us to Russia was so inspired has decided to make global philanthropy her career. We hope that others will find the exchange just as valuable.
CAPTION: Six members of the foundation's Youth Advisory Commitee departed for Moscow yesterday to meet with teens who serve on Russian Youth Banks. They took a van to the airport. Back seat: Carver and McQuillan Murphy. Center seat: Yani Najarian, Erin Feryo, and Hannah Mellott. Front seat: Emma Thornton. Safe travels!
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The final word on school district budgets isn’t in yet. The districts have until June 30 to adopt final budgets and this year presents some hard choices. Ballooning pension costs (the result of a decision by the legislature to increase pension payouts) are forcing many districts to confront bleak financial pictures.
We don’t know what those final budgets will look like, but we do know that an alarming number of school districts immediately looked to their arts and music budgets as an opportunity to cut expenses. We know there are tough choices to be made, but we ought not make bad decisions.
Cutting arts and music education is a bad decision.
The research on the value of arts and music education in improving academic performance is overwhelming. As Tom Horne, then Arizona’s Superintendent of Education said: “If they're worried about their test scores and want a way to get them higher, they need to give kids more arts, not less. There's lots of evidence that kids immersed in the arts do better on their academic tests." The evidence of the value of arts and music education isn’t just found in national studies, locally, Reading Musical Foundation found that, over a ten year period, 74% of Reading School District’s top-ten students were musicians. That’s a pretty impressive statistic. Every education expert I know can cite similar evidence.
We know test scores improve with exposure to arts and music. But there’s another reason to maintain and build that commitment. Our nation (and our region) is in the throes of one of its periodic episodes of hysteria about a foreign threat. As a child growing up in the 1960’s I understood that we were focusing our education efforts on math and science because, in the wake of the Sputnik launch, we were convinced the Soviet Union would overtake us by better educating their kids in math and science. In the 1980’s it was Japan that was going to overtake us—same logic—better math and science education. Obviously, the Soviet Union doesn’t even exist anymore, but the Gross Domestic Product of the Russian Federation is about $1.5 trillion. Japan’s GDP? About $5.5 trillion. The United States? Over $14 trillion.
Now we fear the next country sure to surpass us because of better math and science education—China with a GDP of $6 trillion. We all know that China is growing rapidly, but with a population over three times our size, you’d expect that it would ultimately have bigger economy than ours. But we perceive it to be a crisis and –as in the past—we’re pushing the pendulum on science and math education (this time we call it “STEM” for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and devalue arts and the liberal arts.
There’s nothing wrong with the STEM subjects, in fact they’re all quite important. But when we stress these subjects (and allocate time to them) at the expense of arts, music and the liberal arts we deprive our students of the one set of skills that has allowed our economy to withstand the challenges we’ve faced in the past. It is through the creative arts that children learn to invent, explore, innovate and express themselves. Those skills are why the United States still leads the world in innovation and discovery. It’s precisely those skills that have allowed us to lead the world economically.
Georgette Yakman, a noted educator, urges us to think not about “STEM” but about “STEAM” with arts playing a central role in the education process. That’s a good framework for emphasizing that creative arts, not just technical skills are what make a productive rounded citizen.
It makes sense. It’s what makes and keeps us competitive.
So, if we’re seeking to improve educational outcomes—almost any way we define those—we’d be smarter to increase our commitment to arts and music than to cut it. That would be a good decision. We should make good decisions. Cutting arts and music programs is a bad decision.
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By far our biggest, most feel-good event of the year is our annual scholarship luncheon. It’s easy to see why: the event brings together Berks County’s outstanding students, their parents, and the donors and volunteers who make our scholarships possible. As they sit together and get to know one another, you can see the power of “paying it forward” at its best.
The Community Foundation will distribute more than $400,000 in scholarships from 97 scholarship funds to 188 students this year. That brings the total amount of scholarships we’ve distributed since we began awarding them in 1995 to nearly $3 million.
For me, the best part of the annual luncheon is watching the crowd of nearly 400 people listen as a former scholarship recipient or donor tells his or her story.
We heard from Nicole Acevedo a few years ago, who told the story of her brother, Jorge, and how a drunk driver cut his future short. The Acevedo’s created a fund in Jorge’s memory to help send other Reading teens to culinary school, which was where Jorge dreamed of studying.
Last year we heard from Community Foundation board member Latisha Schuenemann, a local attorney who worked her way through law school several years ago with help from a scholarship fund.
This year, we heard from Omasiel Comrie-Reinert, a bilingual nursing student who’s earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree and is on her way toward her Master’s degree, thanks in part to several Community Foundation scholarships she received. Omasiel gives back through volunteering and helping others achieve their educational dreams.
The application period for our scholarships will reopen in January 2013. Mark your calendar now and be sure to tell a young person you know to search our website for a fund that might match his or her interests. Who knows? Maybe next year they’ll be at the luncheon, too.
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I received many nice notes and calls following the recent announcement that I was elected chair of the board of the Council on Foundations. It’s a nice honor to be selected, and a big job as the Council goes through some fairly big transitions.
One of my friends asked me a simple, but important question: “Why do you bother?” It’s a great question, because it’s one that a manager should ask everyday about every activity. After all, time I’m spending on Council business is time I’m not spending in Berks County. But, as I’ll explain, we think it’s more than worth it.
It’s important to note that while this role comes with a lot of visibility, we encourage all of the people on our management team to be involved in national networks that expand their understanding of philanthropy. Franki Aitken, was (until recently) on the Council on Foundations audit committee and has been an active member of the Foundation Administration and Operations Group. Heidi Williamson served as chair of CommA, the national trade association for community foundation communication directors. We think there’s a professional development value in being connected to a network of peers.
It’s also important to understand that the Council represents over 1800 foundations worldwide ranging from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest, to the very smallest family foundations. It’s a huge network that spans the globe and an incredibly broad array of interests (my personal favorite is the Arcus Foundation, which was established to promote equality for lesbian and gay individuals and to support the conservation of great apes. That’s a diverse set of issues!).
Being involved in that network gives us tremendous access to resources that benefit our community. Our relationship with program staff of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, for instance, has allowed us to tap their expertise in community information systems. That expertise, along with a grant from them, led to the creation of bctv.org, an emerging information hub for our community.
Our involvement in these networks has allowed us to expand the impact of our programs. This year, another group of our Youth Advisory Committee (YAC) members will travel to Russia to attend a conference with Russian community foundation youth banks. That conference, like similar ones we’ve attended, will leave our kids with a much broader understanding of the role of philanthropy across the world, and a unique opportunity to experience a different culture. That’s all made possible by relationships our team has built through networks like the Council on Foundations.
Because the Berks County Community Foundation’s visibility has increased through our involvement, we’re invited to participate in discussions we otherwise wouldn’t be involved with. Heidi Williamson, for example, recently attended a small meeting of mostly national funders to talk about the future of public libraries. The program officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had heard about our Libraries Task Force Report (interestingly, because of a chance meeting at a Council on Foundations event with Karen Rightmire, the Executive Director of the Wyomissing Foundation). As a result of that meeting, we’ve been able to bring a great deal of new information back to the community about how we might re-think our library system for the twenty-first century.
At Berks County Community Foundation, we think one of the most important roles we play is helping to bring new ideas, information and resources to bear on issues in our region. Building relationships with other funders around the country is a critical part of that process.
That’s why we bother.
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There is good news in the city. On May 1, KaBoom! and The Humana Foundation named Reading as an official “Playful City USA.”
Christine Anderton, who volunteers as our Gilmore | Henne Community Fund’s executive director, submitted the application on behalf of the fund and the many volunteers and local companies who’ve worked tirelessly over the past few years to breathe new life into parks in our community.
While park revitalizations at places like 2nd and Oley and Barbey’s playgrounds are mammoth undertakings, receiving the Playful Cities USA designation was no small feat in and of itself.
The application process involved mapping and photographing each park in the city and developing essays on public policy changes that would benefit local parks and their surrounding communities. Letters of recommendation were submitted by Mayor Vaughn Spencer, the Junior League of Reading, Opportunity House, Berks County Community Foundation, and Andy Cush, who owns General Recreation, Inc.
The designation is a wonderful recognition of a true community effort to make sure children in the city have safe, clean places to play. Congratulations to John Gilmore and Chad Henne for their leadership in this important work.
If you’d like to get involved, the Gilmore | Henne Community Fund is gearing up to tackle 2 Parks in 2 Days again this June. This years’ projects are located at Opportunity House and in West Lawn. More information is available at www.ghcommunityfund.com or http://www.causes.com/causes/496114-gilmore-henne-community-fund.
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“Believe deep down in your heart that you're destined to do great things.”
Those words, uttered by the late Penn State Football Coach Joe Paterno are familiar to any Penn State graduate of a certain age—and anyone like me who grew up in State College. “Believe deep down in your heart that you’re destined to do great things” is a phrase that many of us could recite in our sleep.
Berks County is truly an extraordinary place by many measures.
Think about the natural beauty of the place. If there is a more breathtaking sight on earth than the view from the peak of Hawk Mountain, I don’t know where it is.
If any area in the United States has a greater history of innovation and industry, I don’t know where it is. The Reading Railroad, Carpenter Technology, VF Corporation, CHBriggs, Bills Khakis and Radius Toothbrush are just a few examples of the insanely great companies that Berks County has given birth to who have literally changed the world we live in.
But it’s not just business. Think of the arts. We’ve contributed people who were arguably the greatest American poet (Wallace Stevens), short story writer (John Updike) and pop artist (Keith Haring). And as I sat in my living room writing this post, Taylor Swift won two Grammy Awards.
And while Bleacher Report says that Reading native Lenny Moore was the 15th best running back ever, I could find a bunch of guys in any sports bar who would argue that he deserved a higher slot.
The location of our community is an unparalleled asset. 40 Percent of the population of the United States lives within 500 miles of us. It takes about 90 minutes to get from Berks County to the tunnels leading into Manhattan, one of the most dynamic economic engines on the planet.
In short, it’s an amazing place with a long, long track record of producing amazing people and companies.
And yet, I wonder: Do we believe deep in our hearts that we’re destined to do great things?
All of us at the Community Foundation have wondered: Why do we tolerate such mediocre public schools in a community that has so consistently produced greatness? Why do we believe that we deserve dysfunctional local government? Why is it that we’re willing to accept a city in our core that is failing socially, economically and governmentally?
We should. While Berks County may have some kind of collective self esteem problem, we think one of our jobs at Berks County Community Foundation is to ignore that—and to exhort Berks County to the collective greatness that Coach Paterno suggested. We’ll continue to support places of excellence. The Community Foundation will support the best of Berks County. And we’ll never believe anything short of the best is good enough for our residents.
Our donors don’t entrust us with funds to do “mediocre things.” They expect that we’ll challenge the community—and support those projects and organizations that reflect the very best of what Berks County can be.
Whether you’re a volunteer, a donor or a grantee, you should know one thing.When you affiliate yourself with Berks County Community Foundation, you’re getting involved with a group of people—both board and staff—who believe deep down in our hearts that we our destined to do great things.
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Jon Scott, my good friend and CEO of Berks Economic Partnership, recently posted an opinion piece on bctv.org highlighting the importance of strong public education to our efforts to attract and retain great jobs for our region. I couldn’t agree more.
When I arrived in Berks County twenty years ago, the community was pretty complacent about job creation. We were still enjoying a robust, highly diversified employment base that softened the pain of cyclical recessions.
Through that process, we heard over and over that the key to economic competitiveness for our region would be the availability of a well-educated workforce. We heard that from Richard Florida, whose “Rise of the Creative Class” is the definitive book on the subject. But most importantly, we heard this from local business leaders. If there’s one message we’ve heard from the corporate community in Berks County, it’s that their ability to build and retain a Berks County employment base depends on their ability to hire the right people. They tell us all the time about the need to hire rigorously educated people with sufficient math and science skills to understand their technical needs and sufficient communications and liberal arts skills that allow them to think innovatively.
So beyond Jon’s great note is a pressing question: where are those employers now?
Our public school systems are openly discussing cutting core academic programs, with the conventional wisdom being that there will be less uproar from cancelling world languages than from cutting football programs. Probably an honest assessment. Definitely scary.
And where are the employers? Where are the letters to the editor? When will the business leaders in those communities appear at school board meetings to express their priorities? Is Berks Economic Partnership the only voice to be heard?
If educating our future workforce is our region’s highest economic priority (it sure seems like it is), then surely it’s worth fighting for.
But if they don’t hear from the business community—arguably one of the best judges of their performance—they’re likely to make the wrong decisions.
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We’re delighted that Berks Women in Crisis is moving into its new building. It’s been a long process for Mary Kay Bernosky and her dedicated team. Check out an article on the new building in the Reading Eagle. We’re even more excited that the building is scheduled to become the fourth LEED® certified building in the City of Reading.
It’s actually quite a relief for us.
Five years or so ago we announced that we’d be building the city’s first “green building.” To say that people didn’t know what we were talking about would be an understatement. One prominent local leader even remarked that he thought it odd that we would have picked out the color of the building in advance.
Still, we felt an obligation to help the community think differently about how we build buildings, and how those buildings affect the environment, the community and the people who work with them. It was really clear to us that Berks County was far behind the curve in thinking about buildings that would cost less to operate and provide safer working environments.
I’m often asked if we’re pleased with our building and the answer is—“delighted.” It’s done everything we could have hoped for in providing us with better visibility, a place to bring the community together and now—a place where new companies (and new jobs) are created.
But the real success is the number of LEED buildings that have been built in its footsteps: Albright College’s new Science Center, the new addition to Opportunity House for its Second Street Learning Center, and now Berks Women in Crisis. Clearly, folks in the public benefit sector have come to see that—given their need to stretch limited resources—green building technology makes sense.
The trend is catching on outside of the city as well as some local school districts have made commitments to build to LEED standards. Penn State Berks’ new Gaige Building is a model of sustainable design.
Yes, five years ago we faced a lot of skepticism. Today, the idea of building smarter buildings is on the verge of becoming “standard operating procedure” for the community—as it should be. We expect that most years, we’ll save as much as $34,000 in our building on energy costs alone.
Congratulations to Berks Women in Crisis for becoming the latest organization to exhibit leadership for our region! And enjoy the new digs!
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Sometimes we flop. It’s true, but in foundations we don’t talk much about our failures and what we’ve learned from them. There’s a human tendency to move onto the next thing and of course, to talk a lot about your successes.
If, in the eighteen years since Berks County Community Foundation was organized we didn’t have some pretty big flops, I’d think we weren’t doing our jobs. After all, the permanently endowed funds at the Community Foundation give us the independence to take risks. And since we’ve had some spectacular successes, it only makes sense that we’ve had some pretty big failures as well.
In the mid 1990s, the Community Foundation, along with a host of influential donors, spent over a year working to establish a “United Arts Fund” that would have served as a collective fundraising tool for local arts and culture groups. We undertook the effort because it was clear that the arts groups were struggling for funding and not terribly good at fundraising. The United Arts Fund was an idea that never went anywhere. There was massive opposition to the idea from the arts groups themselves and in the end, we all decided to throw in the towel after a lot of hard work.
The lesson: Don’t try to help organizations or people who don’t want the help. We were a little too “big brother” on that one.
Sometimes though, even when they ask for help, it’s hard to help. In 2007, the Reading School District asked us to help it establish a foundation to raise money to support projects at the district. We’re sometimes skeptical about the viability of school district foundations but Reading has such a large alumni base and such a compelling need that we agreed to take it on full-force. We hired a great executive director with a lot of experience and enthusiasm, Anna Kaye, who helped recruit a board of directors and had some early, phenomenal success. Anna, for instance, created a partnership with Boscov’s and Fleetwood Fixtures to turn the decrepit school store into a really cool store that gave kids an opportunity to understand retail business management.
But the district lost interest. We couldn’t get administrators to return calls or attend routine meetings. Anna moved away and was never replaced by the board. In time, the group faded away.
I’ll always believe that our biggest failure was our inability to convince the community, particularly city government, that the financial crisis in the city was real, imminent and bigger than we’d thought. Over the years, we spent more than $100,000 to document the city’s problem. Our partnerships with Reading Eagle Company and the Pennsylvania Economy League in this effort attracted national attention. We believed, and still believe, that the financial crisis facing the city is a threat to the whole region. But mayors and city councils came and went, largely denying the problem, covering it up with one time fixes and ultimately making it worse. Finally, in 2009, the city filed for Act 47 protection. But it was too little, too late and the city’s financial collapse proved unavoidable.
The lesson: Good community philanthropy works in the world of facts, data and action. That’s not always a good fit for the political environment where how the message is delivered is sometimes more important than what the message is. Sometimes, we get into environments where we just aren’t the best players for the job.
This is not an exhaustive list. But it’s proof that sometimes, grantmaking and community organizing work will hit failures.
We’ve had some amazing successes in areas like farmland preservation, green building development, and Asian studies. And why we always try to learn from what worked, it’s just as important that we identify what didn’t work, share our experiences and learn from them, too.
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Last month, I visited with members of Congress in Washington who are clearly wrestling with difficult choices as they think about upcoming budget measures. In particular, the need to reduce the federal deficit and the pressures to adequately fund government sits at the top of their agendas. Along with that, there’s growing pressure to reform our nation’s tax structure, and the most common phrase I heard was “everything is on the table.”
One senator even asked me if I could quantify the impact of completely eliminating the charitable tax deduction. While I was a little taken aback by the question, it is a fair one, and the truth is, I can’t. The honest to God’s truth is that I don’t think anyone knows for sure what would happen to charitable giving in the United States if we didn’t have the charitable deduction.
Some conflicting research has been done, but predicting future human behavior is notoriously difficult.
But I’m not eager to find out. The charitable contributions of Americans to support others in their communities are a national treasure—and unmatched in any other part of the world.
Let me give you one example.
The Greater Berks Food Bank runs a program called the “Weekender Backpack.” The concept is pretty simple: Children who wouldn’t have food over the weekend go home each Friday with a backpack full of food for them and their families. The importance of that program is so self-evident that it bears no further discussion.
And it’s entirely funded by charitable contributions to the Food Bank (you can make a contribution here). It costs about $155,000 a year to send 1,400 backpacks home with kids from Berks and Schuylkill Counties. For many of those families, it is the only food they have for the weekend.
No rational analysis of our nation’s economic picture suggests that shifting resources from one societal pocket (the Greater Reading Food Bank) to another (the U.S. Government) advances us as a nation.
Everything may be on the table for members of Congress. But I’m more concerned about making sure there’s food on the table for our children.
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We’ve been watching the debate over the proposed “Downtown 20/20” plan for Reading with considerable interest. As long ago as 1995, when the Community Foundation made the grant that established the Reading Downtown Improvement District, we’ve been urging the city to focus on its downtown core. We sponsored trips to Greenville, South Carolina so local officials could see its downtown revitalization and to Philadelphia to visit the Avenue of the Arts.
Our interest in this comes from a simple fact: We’ve been unable to identify a successful city economic revitalization that didn’t begin with its downtown core and move outward. Think about Philadelphia, Chattanooga, Greenville and even New York City (the Times Square revitalization) as examples.
And so, to add to the debate, we’d add these observations.
Mayoral Commitment is a Must
Before anything else can happen, the city needs a mayor who is willing to make downtown revitalization his or her number one priority. Every mayor who has led one of these efforts has been monomaniacal in his or her focus on the downtown and willing to take some political heat for not paying enough attention to the residential neighborhoods.
I have no idea what Mayor Spencer’s economic development plan is for the city. But if he doesn’t make it his top priority, you can forget any real progress.
You Have To Have Some Faith—And Do Two Things at Once
The debate about whether to backfill the empty storefronts, assure public safety or do the street-scaping has a historical answer: Most of the cities that have been successful have focused on the physical aspects of making the street more pedestrian friendly (Penn Street is a pedestrian disaster area) while aggressively promoting downtown events.
In fact, events are so important, that we’d wonder whether one or both of the proposed market houses should be designed as “event space” not additional retail space.
This takes a leap of faith. Making downtown nice again will require some major capital (that’s why it’s got to be the mayor’s top priority if it’s going to happen). There will be a tendency to see if “just doing the events” will work. It won’t. There’s no cheap route to success here.
Sure, a downtown needs to be safe to succeed. Or, more accurately, it needs to be perceived as safe. And while there are a lot of “experts” out there who will go orbital when we say this, there’s no evidence that the perception of safety in downtown Reading is hurting downtown Reading.
Call It Downtown 2035
Being realistic is part of the game here. To imagine that the kind of success being dreamed of here will come in the next seven years is simply unrealistic. These efforts take 20 to 30 years of hard work to become sustainable.
Worry about West Reading
In the past twenty years, West Reading has undergone a remarkable transformation. While it’s not quite “there” yet, the emergence of a walkable, vibrant commercial district is within reach. In fact, parts of it are there. You can have drinks in one spot, take a leisurely stroll for dinner at a nearby restaurant and stop at one of the specialty stores along the way.
Most of the downtown revitalizations we’ve seen have included about eight blocks of activity. That’s got a lot to do with what’s “walkable” (or “strollable” might be more accurate). Reading shouldn’t act like it’s in a silo. Before it spends a lot of money pursuing a downtown strategy, it needs to give some careful thought whether this regioncan support another eight blocks of walkable retail. We don’t know the answer, but it’s a question that needs to be explored.
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IN THE NEWS
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