Berks Alliance: Collaboration is key to strengthening communities

Cris Collingwood//May 12, 2023

Screenshot of the Berks Alliance homepage.

Berks Alliance: Collaboration is key to strengthening communities

Cris Collingwood//May 12, 2023

Anchor institutions can provide communities with solutions to economic and social problems when they work together with government and business leaders. 

So said the Berks Alliance, which held a community forum Thursday to look at how anchor institutions make an impact on the Berks County economy. 

Dave Myers, director of the Berks County Alliance, said colleges, universities, hospitals and health systems impact local communities through the jobs they create and the goods and services they purchase, but they can also foster stronger communities by working together to solve issues like childcare, job training and workforce development, and home ownership. 

Deborah Diamond, director of the Anchor Economy Initiative through the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, introduced the group to the Anchor Economy Initiative, which looks at the combined impact anchor institutions have on economic activity.  

The fed, she said, is interested in this because these institutions are often the largest employers, they are anchored in place, and have a large commitment to economic development. 

Through collaboration, they can work to find solutions to issues facing the community, she said.  

“Since the 2000s, there have been movements toward anchor collaboratives,” Diamond said. “They identify things, that through their strengths, they can accomplish together.” 

Jacque Fetrow, president of Albright College and Dr. Charles Barbera, president and CEO of Reading Hospital talked about how the anchor institutions in Berks County work together to solve socioeconomic issues.  

Albright College, with an annual income of $102.4 million and close to 1,100 employees, works with the College Heights Neighborhood and others to grow a sense of place, Fetrow said.  

“We have collaboratives with the Berks Alliance and the other five colleges in the area. We identify our strengths and community needs and work together to find solutions,” she said.  

The college also collaborates with Reading Hospital. Fetrow cited an example where Reading Hospital, which has the busiest emergency room in the state, needed scribes to take notes.  

Fetrow said the hospital didn’t have the funding to hire scribes, but Albright had students studying medicine or related courses and was able to provide them to the hospital. The students got college credit for the work and learned about working in the hospital at the same time. 

She said, too, that the local school districts were facing a teacher shortage and Albright and Reading Area Community College came together to certify paraprofessionals.  

“We developed a pipeline where they could get their associate degree from RACC and their bachelor’s degree from us,” she said.  

Because of barriers to committing full-time, Fetrow said the program was designed so students could “come on and off the path” when they needed to. 

“This was cheaper than the regular path and we responded to the needs of the schools in our community,” she said.  

“We are blessed with not a lot of egos in our leading anchors,” Barbera said. “There is no threat or competition, and we help build bridges” by sharing resources. 

Barbera pointed to the vast array of jobs within the hospital. Calling it “a city,” he said the hospital employs all types of people from plumbers and electricians to IT and accountants.  

Reading Hospital created an internship program with the Reading School District, bringing students into the hospital.  

“They get to see all the jobs available beyond the doctors and nurses,” he said, adding that many of the students had no idea what was available. 

Barbera also pointed to the investments made to help the West Reading area that was once a mill town. After the mills left, the area was impoverished. 

“Reading Hospital invested in the revitalization of the area and asked what the community needed,” he said. 

From the inquiries, Barbera said the Street Medicine Program, the mobile mammography unit and community health workers were established.  

“Our institutions provide services together to overcome issues,” he said. 

  1. Sue Perrotty, president and CEO of Tower Health, parent of Reading Hospital, said sometimes the collaborations help people one at a time. 

“When you connect and pay attention, you can make a difference. When you think outside the box, you can make connections you never thought possible.,” she said. 

Perrotty cited a program in Reading School District that pairs seniors with second graders for reading help.  She met a 17-year-old senior who was part of the tutoring program who was an immigrant who taught himself English. 

She found out he wanted to be a nurse but needed a class to “pursue his dream.” She told the group she got him into the class at RACC and gave him a part time job at the hospital so he could afford it. 

“Business partners are so important, too,” she said. “We have a very philanthropic community, and we have to figure out how to invite them to be part of this.” 

John Weidenhammer, chairman of the Greater Berk Chamber Alliance, said when anchor institutions come to the table and talk about challenges and issues, things can be accomplished.  

He cited the employment situation. The Berks Alliance, he said, can provide a pipeline to fill vacant positions by getting through the barriers people face. Those barriers include education, transportation, childcare, language, skills and quality housing.  

“There are a lot of moving parts, but it is not an unsolvable problem,” he said.