U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan meets Reading's new Climate Corps

·3 min read

Sep. 9—U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan carefully maneuvered down the four flights of cracked and crumbling concrete steps outside of the Reading Pagoda towards the trail below.

It was early Friday afternoon, and the Chester County Democrat was on a mission. Bit by bit, she would help clean up the debris that littered the Pagado Trail.

She picked up the fractured neck of a bottle, pieces of a trash bag, shards of broken glass and even a gold ball, all scattered among the trees and brush.

Houlahan wasn't alone in her efforts. As she toiled, she was surrounded by seven young adults doing just the same.

And for them, the cleanup wasn't a one-time thing.

They were members of the Reading Climate Corps, a group designed to engage young adult residents who are facing significant barriers to education and employment through hands-on projects that are aimed at addressing local environmental concerns related to climate change.

The group was created as part of an AmeriCorps program that seeks to serve environmentally and economically underserved communities.

That's a mission Houlahan, who has spent time volunteering in AmeriCorps' Teach for America program, said she can get on board with.

"Having the experience of having been in Teach for America goes with me everywhere I go and helps me understand education in a way that I normally wouldn't have been able to," she said. "I'm an enormous supporter of service in all forms so this is really inspirational to see the next generation taking this on.

"What they are doing is helpful for all kinds of reasons that are obvious, but it also has the ability to change the mindset of the people serving and those who are being served."

Corps members are assisting the city in completing public-space maintenance projects, such as planting and caring for the urban forest; installing and maintaining green stormwater infrastructure; identifying and removing invasive plant species; developing community gardens; and maintaining blighted lots.

The project, which was introduced by Reading Sustainability Manager Bethany Fisher, is funded through a number of grants and is planned to continue for at least another two years.

Local corps members split their time between foundational career training and hands-on work experience. Each participant is expected to complete 900 hours of service, about 35 hours per week and will be paid $14 per hour.

In addition to workforce skills, members earn a $3,200 education award that can be used to pay for college or technical training.

Fisher said that since its start in May the program has already proven to be a major benefit to the city.

"Climate Corps has been a game-changer," she said Friday. "Not only are they able to lend a hand when we need some extra help in the public works department, but they are able to tackle a lot of things that we needed to do but simply didn't have enough manpower to accomplish."

Houlahan said it's clear the impact a program like the Corps can have, both on the city and the young adults taking part.

That's why she has vowed to push for continued support for it at the federal level.

She is a member of the National Service Congressional Caucus, a bipartisan group of legislators in Congress dedicated to raising awareness of national service and expanding service opportunities in America.

"We were successful in getting some funding for the AmeriCorps programs in the American Rescue Plan, but there is so much more that can be done," she said. "It's an investment not just in our young people and the work they will do as part of the program but for their future."

One idea that Houlahan has is based on her own experience. She earned her engineering degree from Stanford thanks to an ROTC scholarship that launched her service in the Air Force.

Houlahan said she would like to see a similar federal scholarship program created that would launch students into other fields like public health, public education or public works.