United Community Services for Working Families was founded in 1998 and incorporated as a 501(c)3 in 1999 to serve workers and their families in the Berks County area. As the sister organization to the United Labor Council of Reading Berks, United Community Services was created by both the United Labor Council and United Way of Berks County.
UCS in its role as Labor Liaison
Traditionally, the Labor Liaison is a member of a local United Way’s staff who cultivates the relationship between the AFL-CIO, the local United Way, and workers in their community. Here in Berks County, the decision was made to take this role a step further and create a stand-alone non-profit who could be labor liaison and develop new approaches to addressing the needs in the community. One of the primary responsibilities as labor liaison is to provide support to workers experiencing a layoff. As a member of the PA State Rapid Response team, UCS along with other organizations including Unemployment Compensation and CareerLink meet with workers that are or will soon become dislocated from their employment. UCS provides follow-up support and connections to community resources. Over the years, UCS has served more than 20,000 workers in the Berks community affected by layoffs.
Ensuring Workers and their Families have Access to Food
In 2001, UCS absorbed the Labor Advisory Committee that had operated the Helping Hands Food Pantry since 1991. Started as a small food distribution, union volunteers packed boxes to distribute to workers and their families in need. As manufacturing jobs were lost in this community, the need for food support grew. Soon, the Helping Hands Food Pantry reached a capacity of 300 families per month. The labor intensive model of packing boxes was changed to a client-choice layout better accommodating the growing numbers of families served. UCS became a member of the Greater Berks Food Bank network to access a wider variety and quantity of food to distribute to the clients. The decision was made in 2016 to close the long running food pantry to better focus the future direction of United Community Services.
Building a Diverse Construction Industry
The union construction industry had traditionally been dominated by white men who were often in the trades because a family member was too. As members began aging out and technologies changing, the need for young skilled workers grew. The trades looked to create a diverse membership that included women and individuals of color. United Community Services used its position in the community and relationship with the local building trades to establish the Pre-Apprenticeship Initiative. This innovative approach to connecting urban youth to apprenticeships in construction which offered family sustaining wages, was the first of its kind in Pennsylvania.
In 2004, Building a Future, funded by the Workforce Investment Board, recruited high school seniors from Berks County schools, primarily Reading High, to attend a 12-week program in winter that offered courses in Reading/Writing, Construction Math, Work Readiness, and Building Trades Readiness. The program was a success introducing the young people to careers they did not know about or were not able to access on their own. The program soon expanded to include juniors taking part in the summer prior to their senior year. Reading Works was the next venture to expose high school students sooner to careers in construction. UCS started an after-school construction club, in 2006, that targeted grades 9-12 and served as a feeder to the Building a Future program.
After several years, the pre-apprenticeship programs were well-established in the community and UCS efforts turned to supporting out-of-school youth as well through the national based model, YouthBuild. After receiving the first Department of Labor YouthBuild grant in 2009, UCS implemented the education and training program for young adults ages 17-24 who did not have a high school diploma or GED. The program incorporated academic preparation for the GED and hands-on construction experience in partnership with the Reading Housing Authority.
When the construction industry experienced tremendous job loss, UCS had to adapt to continue preparing young people for viable careers.
A New Direction
After much consideration with partners, staff, and students, UCS moved in another direction to establish a direct care worker training program that would provide participants access to entry-level positions in the non-medical side of healthcare. The training was offered as a part of our YouthBuild program and as a standalone to individuals in the Berks community. UCS is now approved by the PA Department of Education to offer a nurse aide curriculum to YouthBuild students and others. Stayed tuned as we build this program.
A Legacy Lives On
United Community Services was created as a non-profit organization that could connect the resources and programs of the United Way of Berks County to the working men and women of the labor community. At its helm for 15 years was the founder and first Executive Director, Ruth Mathews. Mathews was born and reared in Reading—graduating Reading High School. Mathews began her college degree as an adult learner in 1969—receiving her undergraduate degree in Sociology/Women’s Studies and Master’s degree in Labor Studies and Women’s Studies from Rutgers University. After receiving her Master’s Degree, she taught at Rutgers University and went on to teach at Ramapo College of N.J. where she created the State’s off-campus college degree program for workers.
As Associate Dean of Empire State College SUNY in Manhattan, Mathews was responsible for the academic program that articulated an Associate Degree program with the IBEW Local 3 Apprenticeship program. Mathews was awarded Empire State College Excellence in Service Award in 1991. Upon returning to Reading, she founded United Community Services partnering with United Way of Berks County and the United Labor Council of Reading Berks. Mathews and her staff developed the first pre-apprenticeship program in PA that prepares and connects urban youth to the apprenticeship program. Furthermore, she was instrumental in UCS receiving 3 national Department of Labor grants to facilitate the nationally recognized YouthBuild program. In 2014, Mathews stepped down as Executive Director to enjoy retirement. Although, retirement for her meant only coming into the office 20 hours a week, instead of over 40, when she became Director of Sustainability.
Mathews served on many community boards over her many years of service: Berks County Workforce Investment Board, United Way of Berks County Community Impact Cabinet, Berks County Board of Assistance, Berks Community Health Center, and the PA Adult Learning and Family Learning Coordinating Council and the Wyomissing Foundation. In 2009, Mathews received the prestigious United Way Doran Award for community service and the John Brennan Award in 2004 from the PA Labor History Society for Excellence in fostering labor history in schools.
Sadly, United Community Services lost its founder in February of 2016. However, her legacy lives on in the staff that saw her as a leader, mentor, and friend. Her fight to ensure workers and their families live a life not in poverty continues…