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U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan touts American Rescue Plan during tour of Berks

Originally published in the Reading Eagle.

Congresswoman Chrissy Houlahan sat outside La Abuela Mexican Restaurant on Penn Avenue in West Reading Tuesday, snacking on fresh tortilla chips and tangy salsa.

Between bites, the Chester County Democrat reflected on how great it felt to be able to once again visit places in her district following more than a year of online meetings and virtual town halls.

"It's really inspiring to hear these stories of survival," she said. "We've all been doing our best to manage our way through this crisis and now it finally seems like we can poke our heads out to see how we have weathered the storm."

Back then, COVID was merely a blip on the radar, still mostly contained to China and weeks away from starting its reign of devastation in the United States. It was not something that was on the top of most people's minds.

Tuesday was a different story. The pandemic was not only a topic of discussion, but the center of it. 

Saying there is a light at the end of the tunnel, Houlahan took the tour as an opportunity to hear how her constituents are finding their way through the pandemic and to tout the sweeping $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that she helped muscle through Congress last month.

"This is a huge piece of legislation that will help so many different parts of our community, but it can be hard to explain to people exactly how to access this help right now," she said. "I think if the pandemic has taught us anything it's how interconnected we all are."

The American Rescue Plan provides direct payments to millions of people, pumps funding into small businesses, extends federal unemployment benefits and helps cover the cost of vaccine distribution.

It also includes $350 billion in aid to state and local governments and $130 billion to assist schools with reopening.

The plan will have a big impact on Berks.

The American Rescue Plan will pump at least $338 million of pandemic relief funding into local governments and school districts across the county.

Houlahan, who represents the city and many southwestern communities in Berks, made several stops on her tour to highlight the fresh round of stimulus money for small businesses and various community organizations.

At La Abuela, owner Glenda Rosil told her that 2020 has been a "very long and hard year." She said her restaurant was only able to stay afloat thanks to its customers' willingness to order takeout, as well as federal Paycheck Protection Program funding.

The restaurant received two PPP loans, each time borrowing less than $150,000. The American Rescue Plan will turn those loans into grants.

Houlahan said that aspect of the American Rescue Plan will help countless small business owners like Rosil. She also said the plan includes $28 billion for restaurants through various programs, encouraging Rosil to investigate them.

Rosil said she's confident that her restaurant will be able to weather the storm and come through the pandemic intact.

"I have a lot of faith in God, in my staff, in the community and in our family," she said.

Support for the arts

Sitting in a circle with eight members of the organization, Houlahan said she was interested to hear about the programs they run and how they are trying to engage the people of Reading through the arts.

"Thank you for all of the things you value, whether it's engagement in the arts or education, those are all things that I don't think our society values enough," she said. "And I am grateful to you for seeing the value in those."

Houlahan spoke about how the arts are a key piece of "what makes us human" and need to be supported and celebrated.

The American Rescue Plan does just that, she said. It provides $135 million for the National Endowment for the Arts, $135 million for the National Endowment for the Humanities and $200 million for the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The congresswoman encouraged those at Barrio Alegria to reach out to her office for help obtaining grants that will help them continue their mission in Reading.

Daniel Egusquiza, executive director, told Houlahan that the work he and his staff do is a portal to deeper engagement with the people of Reading. Through their work, they're able to get a sense of what issues are important to the community.

"I think that art translates into the perfect vehicle for engagement," he said. "The walls that people build can be broached. So we found that through the arts we can gather people together and have some discussions about some different issues."

Those conversations have shown that things like sexual assault, immigration and economic inequality are among the community's chief concerns.

Other stops 

The visit to Barrio Alegria was the second stop for Houlahan on her tour.

She had started her day with a visit to the Berks County Intermediate Unit's Head Start program in Reading. While she was there, she spoke with staff members about the program, the funding the American Rescue Plan will make available and about her efforts to create legislation that would help improve childhood literacy.

Houlahan also visited the LGBT Center of Reading to talk about how the American Rescue Plan will impact people in the LGBTQ community, especially LGBTQ people of color who are more likely to work jobs highly impacted by COVID and live in low-income households.

She also learned about the impact the pandemic has had on LGBTQ communities and discussed her work to pass the Equality Act.

During a stop at the Berks Community Health Center, she convened a roundtable to discuss how Berks is preparing for the next phase of the pandemic, her legislative efforts to expand access to telehealth and the impact the pandemic has had on the ongoing opioid crisis.

Houlahan finished her tour by celebrating some big achievements in the Reading School District.

She visited Reading High to help honor the state champion Red Knight boys basketball team. She presented them with a congressional commendation for their outstanding performance.

She also presented Dr. Khalid Mumin, superintendent with a congressional challenge coin to recognize his achievement of being named the Pennsylvania Superintendent of the Year by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

Houlahan and Mumin then discussed the impact COVID has had on education and the $104 million the district is getting as part of the American Rescue Plan, which will allow it to prioritize safely reopening schools and take steps to help students who have fallen behind catch up.