READING, Oct. 6, 2011— State Sen. Judy Schwank this week welcomed Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare Secretary Gary Alexander to Berks County to discuss the issues facing local social service agencies that have been affected by state budget cuts and the economy.
“Poverty is real in Berks County, whether it’s in our urban communities or our rural areas,” Schwank said. “Organizations and agencies are using every resource they have to help people move forward, but they too are feeling the squeeze of budget cuts and an unstable economy. I wanted the secretary to meet the people who are trying to help as many people as possible, even in tough times. It’s important that Secretary Alexander sees that DPW funds are going to good use.”
The daylong discussion commenced with a discussion with Modesto Fiume, president of Opportunity House, a multi-service organization that assists low-income and at-risk individuals and families in Reading, and Kathy Greiss, president of Friend Inc. Community Services, a multi-service social agency based in Kutztown.
While both organizations serve different populations, they share the goal of providing individuals and families the tools they need to become self sufficient. They are also struggling with budgetary constraints.
“It’s amazing that Opportunity House and Friend Inc. are still working so diligently to help others, despite lean times,” Schwank said. “The needs of low-income urban residents versus low-income rural residents are similar, but their access to services is often quite different so I’m thankful for these organizations and their dedication to our urban and rural residents.”
Schwank and Alexander then met representatives from the county’s Department of Children and Youth and Department of Mental Health/Mental Retardation to discuss their needs and concerns. State Sen. Dave Argall, who also represents a portion of Berks County, attended as well.
The departments expressed their frustration with DPW’s regulations and the lack of accountability by health care providers. They discussed ways to improve the interaction between the state and county agencies.
“Our county agencies are frustrated. They want to provide a safety net for those who need it most but they know they are working with limited funds,” Schwank said. “I’m pleased that the secretary could meet with the folks who are on the front lines serving vulnerable citizens because I believe it will help him make improvements to DPW.”
Alexander agreed that the system is broken and assured the group that he was working to root out fraud and waste while simplifying the massive department.
Finally, Schwank, Argall and Alexander toured Hamburg State Center, an intermediate care facility located in Hamburg that provides an array of services to 115 children and adults with varying special needs.
Alexander spoke to several parents whose now-adult children call the center home. They implored the secretary to keep Hamburg State Center open because their children receive quality medical and social services in a loving environment.
“We heard first hand from the center’s biggest advocates, the parents,” Schwank said. “Their experiences gave both the secretary and me a personal glimpse of the individuals who are benefitting from state-run facilities. To quote one of the parents, ‘They’re not institutions. They’re home.’ We must do everything we can to ensure that we don’t take the homes of our most vulnerable citizens away.”
The tour with Alexander is just one of the ways the senator is exploring the county’s needs.
“Secretary Alexander and I had an extremely productive meeting I’m encouraged that he was willing to come to Berks County and meet with local agencies and organizations,” Schwank said. “This is a good start toward moving our area forward but there’s much more work to be done. We must focus on ensuring that our agencies are properly funded and we must do more to promote job growth.
“I will continue to meet with the various communities and gain a better focus on how I can best represent the 11th Senatorial District,” she said.