Transcript: Peter Urscheler, Mayor of Phoenixville (The Art of Volunteering)

The following is a transcription of The Art of Volunteering Episode S2E7: Peter Urscheler, Mayor of Phoenixville.

Stormy Bell (00:00): Welcome to the latest episode of The Art of Volunteering. My guest today is a friend of mine, Peter mayor of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. When Pete is not doing his mayor duties, he is a passionate volunteer. He believes in the importance of volunteering, not only in his community, but in his own life. Welcome Mayor Pete to The Art of Volunteering.

Mayor Peter Urscheler (00:26): Thanks so much Stormy.

Stormy Bell (00:28): To start off our conversation today, if you can give a brief history of the town of Phoenixville and how it’s becoming a renaissance town, and maybe tell a little bit about yourself as well.

Mayor Peter Urscheler (00:40): Absolutely. I’m so fortunate to serve as the mayor of the Borough of Phoenixville. We are an incredibly vibrant community about 45 minutes from Philadelphia. Phoenixville actually has incredible historical roots. We were founded in 1849 when we changed from our original name, which was Manavon to then Phoenixville. Phoenixville is a very hardworking community. It always has been. Really kind of our first industries were the steel factories that we had here. Phoenixville used to produce a number of items that were used all over the world including, we had steel, we had fabrics, and then we also had a special type of pottery called Majolica. All of these products were actually sent across the world. Probably the thing we were most well known for were our bridges.

Phoenixville had two incredible patents which really helped to make the steel company grow and of course, the community kind of grew with it. The first was actually the Griffen Gun, which was a cannon that was used by the Union Army during the Civil War. If you go to Gettysburg today, 90% of the cannons that you see on display there are actually from Phoenixville. That’s pretty neat. The other thing is that we made the Phoenix column, which was this special type of column made out of raw iron, it’s hollow on the interior and it’s four pieces which are riveted together. The column at the turn of the century really allowed structures to have this extraordinary strength, but also be lightweight so that structures could have great height.

Mayor Peter Urscheler (02:18): The interior of the Washington Monument in Washington DC is actually made of Phoenix Steel. It’s very special as a community to have that kind of history. Like many steel towns, Phoenixville went through a very challenging time when our steel plant closed, which was in the 1980s. Phoenixville kind of went through this quieter period. It was almost like a depressive period where all of our shops and things in the downtown were kind of closed up. Our community always had this fighting spirit. In the late 1990s, early 2000s a number of our citizens got together and they said, we don’t wanna lose these very special buildings that we have. Buildings like the Colonial Theater, which are right in the middle of downtown. That was really one of the first buildings that they started to kind of bring back.

Between the Colonial Theater and the Foundry building they really wanted to preserve our history and use that as a way to attract people to come into our community. In the early 2000s, the Colonial Theater was saved and the Colonial Theater probably is best known as the home of The Blob. So the 1950s cult classic, which we recreate every single year was actually filmed at the Colonial Theater right here in Phoenixville. Over the last 20 plus years everyone in our community’s really been working together to help Phoenixville kind of grow and attract new people and just be the vibrant community that it always has been. What we’ve seen is a 14% increase year over year, and people moving into our community.

Mayor Peter Urscheler (03:49): We have over 52 extraordinary festivals in our downtown every single year. Almost something every weekend. We are number 11 in the country for breweries and distilleries per capita. So if you wanna come and find a neat place to go out, it also has a lot of great nightlife. We have so many beautiful restaurants and shops all kind of within the walkable downtown historical district of Phoenixville. I actually came to Phoenixville in 2006. I’m originally from Florida [and] I’m the first person in my family who was actually born in the United States. My mother was from the Philippines. My father was Swiss. They met in Australia and they moved to Florida in 1980 and then I followed not too far after. I’ve just always loved being involved and being part of the community. In 2017, the opportunity came for me to run for mayor and I actually became one of the youngest mayors in Phoenixville’s history.

Stormy Bell (04:43): That’s awesome. I was doing a little research, 2018 is when you became mayor. That’s incredible. Has it been a good journey?

Mayor Peter Urscheler (04:51): It has. It’s really been a very special journey for me. I was always very involved when I was growing up. I would’ve never, if you would’ve asked me when I was growing up, do you wanna be mayor? Do you wanna be an elected official? I don’t know if I would’ve ever said yes. But now that I look back on my history, I suppose maybe it was meant to be. I’m actually named after an auditor general, and my middle name is my great-grandfather, who was a mayor of his town. So perhaps it was a genetic predisposition but I was always really involved in my school, my student government. Whenever I visit our schools here, I always say to the kids, my first elected office was when I was in third grade. We built a milk carton city and I was elected superintendent. I guess I got an early start but I was really involved in high school and in college and I did a lot of advocacy initiatives around student scholarships with the legislature in Florida. I guess it was something I was just naturally attracted to.

Stormy Bell (05:48): Oh, that’s awesome. Okay. Let’s circle back to Phoenixville. How have you seen the residents come out? Because I’m assuming there’s a lot of volunteering that has happened to help Phoenixville become the town that it is and where it’s going. What has that looked like from your position as the mayor? What do you see?

Mayor Peter Urscheler (06:10): Phoenixville is really kind of special and unique because when I think of our revitalization, there are certainly a lot of players that I could point out and we’d be here for days, I could make a list, but every single person in our community was working towards that. Really Phoenixville from its start was always a very caring community. From a volunteer perspective, we actually have 65 non-profits within the borough. We have the highest concentration of nonprofits in Chester County. I really think it’s a testament to our community and to the care and concern that everyone has in Phoenixville for one another and for their neighbors. That really has been, I think, a driving force of the revitalization. There are many communities that are challenged to revitalize and they think, how can we balance having social service organizations and then also the desire to have significant economic growth. I always say, you can do both. In fact you have to do both. People in your community need to know that they are cared for, that someone’s there to care for them, and they need to feel valued and valuable within your community. From that economic growth will follow.

Stormy Bell (07:22): Oh, I like that. They really compliment each other.

Mayor Peter Urscheler (07:27): You need both. Absolutely.

Stormy Bell (07:30): Now I know just from knowing you, you volunteer. You’re not just the mayor, you participate in the volunteering. You’re part of different organizations. What organizations do you serve with and why are they so dear to your heart that you would put your time into them?

Mayor Peter Urscheler (07:47): Absolutely. I volunteer and interestingly enough too, mayors are not full-time jobs. So in addition to being mayor, my full-time job is a Development Director for a nonprofit in Phoenixville. I literally live, breathe, and eat nonprofit and volunteerism. To me it’s really special. I like to be right there, like boots on the ground involved in kind of everything. Any organization that will ask me to come to do an event, I will literally be there. Many people in Phoenixville know me for my funny costumes. If you have a costume you want me to wear, I will literally put it on and do whatever I can to support our organizations that we have here. You know, we have so many great organizations and it’s like  I know I’m gonna miss some, but I’ll just kind of give you like the last week the things that we’ve worked on.

One of our great organizations is PACS. They really focus on food insecurity. During the pandemic, they went from a 3000 square foot building to a 20,000 square foot building and have really become kind of like a regional hub helping ensure this Northeastern part of Chester County is safe from food insecurity. I will say, unfortunately, because of the pandemic and inflation the need for their services has increased almost four times what it was prior to the pandemic. We do a lot of fun programs with them, a lot of food sorting. I’ll generally go kind of on the big days, especially if like the Boy Scouts or somebody’s doing a special drive, I’ll go and help out with the food sorting.

Mayor Peter Urscheler (09:21): Orion Communities, I am their physical next door neighbor. I literally live next door to them. They are really a great organization. Neighbors helping neighbors. They help with case management and helping people on the, you know, everyday types of needs. Bus passes, sometimes gift cards to the grocery store, helping them get job placements and other types of needs that maybe even larger than that. We just had an incredible casino night last week for them, big fundraising event last night. I literally am just coming off of the Phoenixville Community Education Foundation. They’re a very special organization we have here in our community. They raise money specifically to help students in our school district to have access to programs that they may not have if we didn’t have this kind of other source of revenue. They help ensure every student has the supplies that they need at the beginning of the year. They do weekend backpacks with food for students who may be facing food insecurity. They also help to inspire different types of clubs and organizations within our school districts. One of those great programs.

Another great nonprofit is Crescendo. Crescendo is free violin lessons taught by an extraordinary person. Liz actually was an attorney and had loved playing the violin and really wanted to make sure every student in our community had access to play a stringed instrument, which is generally seen as a very expensive kind of process. She ensures every student has access to string instruments free of charge, and they’re able to play them. Of course the organization, I actually am the development director for Ann’s Heart very ironically, close to my heart is Ann’s Heart.

Mayor Peter Urscheler (11:05): One of our core programs is our Code Blue Center, which is the lowest barrier emergency center in Chester County. Meaning that as long as individuals are safe and they can come there and they won’t cause harm to themselves or others, they’re able to stay there. Generally from, we draw from about a 10 mile radius from Phoenixville. It is truly[ an] emergency shelter during cold weather. So we open in November and we’ll run from November till probably April or May. It’s the 15 beds in a dormitory style setting and we ensure that people who are unfortunately facing housing insecurity have a place to safely be inside. During the summer, we provide Code Red which is on specific days where the outside temperature may be dangerous for individuals who aren’t housed.

We also provide the Center for Emergency Resources at Ann’s Heart, we call it CERAH. That is a program specifically that works with housing case management. If individuals are in imminent danger becoming homeless or are already homeless, they can come. We actually have showers and laundry facilities there that are open throughout the week, during non Code Blue times. We also have a full-time case manager who will actually work with individuals, meet them where they are, and help them along their housing journey so that they can get to sustainable insecure housing. Those are just to name a few. My gosh, you know, I’m also on the board of the Schuylkill River Heritage Center, which is the museum inside the Foundry. If people haven’t had an opportunity to go see that, it’s really about our history, not only here in Phoenixville, but the history of the Schuylkill River.

Mayor Peter Urscheler (12:43): Basically how we once had mule barges that were bringing steel and other materials down the Schuylkill River and really helped places like Phoenixville grow. Things like the Reading Railroad that we’re bringing anthracite coal from the northern part of Pennsylvania into Phoenixville to help all of our industries grow. I’m also the President of the Board of the Senior Center. Phoenixville Area Senior Center is one of five senior centers in Chester County. We serve over 2,500 members of our senior center, an incredibly dynamic community. I will tell you that being a senior is definitely not what people envision. Our seniors are extremely active. We have exercise classes. We have evening out programs the third or fourth Thursday of every month, we do a specialized program.

We’ll have like October Fest, we’ll do Valentine’s Day dances. We actually have a really fun program coming up on the 16th of March. We’re going to be doing an Irish Wake. We do a ton of fun and creative programs. Our Irish wake at the Phoenixville area Senior Center is really special. It’s actually a kind of a two hour event. The first hour is really funny. I actually play the corpse and I sit in the coffin, and if you make me laugh, you can win prizes or you can take home whiskey. It’s all sorts of different types of things. Then after that first really funny hour, we go upstairs and we have an end of life fair. People are probably shocked, like, you’re going from this really funny, like, comedic thing.

Mayor Peter Urscheler (14:16): What we find is it’s a nice way to get people to talk about a really challenging subject and that’s kind of end of life care. What are your wishes? What do you wanna have happen at the end of your life so that we can ensure it’s as graceful and dignified as the entirety of your life. So we have a fair upstairs that everyone attends, and it’s a great way for people to start that conversation. They come in and have fun and have a big Irish meal and then go upstairs to the end of life fair. What I think is really special about all the nonprofits, and again, I’ve just named a few. The other day I was at the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area, absolutely incredible. We have a team of people here in our community dedicated to the preservation of our history and not just our history, but every family who’s been here is history.

What I would say is special about our community is that our nonprofits all work together. The kind of the nonprofits I’ve been telling you about, I could go on and on and on about cross programming that they do with one another. Oh, one of my other favorite ones [is] The Clinic. We have The Clinic and Health Care Access here. Both of those organizations specifically focus on the physical health of individuals, access to primary care physicians. The Clinic is actually a free clinic for uninsured or underinsured and then Health Care Access is an organization that helps people who may need more advanced types of treatments. We have all these things and they’re all working together, which I think is really special. If there were anything I were to classify Phoenixville as, it’s that we have an abundance mindset. Our nonprofits are not competing with each other for dollars or attention or space in our community. Everybody’s really working to find their niche that they work on and then serve and assist each other and collaborate with one another so that we can best serve the needs of our community.

Stormy Bell (16:00): That’s probably helped. We’re talking about the town becoming a renaissance town because everyone is working together and it’s collaborative that you’re all working towards the goal together. There’s not this friction or striving to one up someone else. It’s a collaborative effort. That’s amazing.

Mayor Peter Urscheler (16:24): Absolutely. When I look at it, you know, Phoenixville is successful because everybody is working towards the success of Phoenixville. Now, like any community we may have different opinions on which journey, or which road we need to take to get there but when we pick a direction, we all come together. We share our thoughts and ideas, and then we all kind of move in that same direction and that direction is moving our community forward. I would say too from a volunteerism perspective, what’s really special to me now is to see, you know, we’re one of the fastest growing municipalities in Pennsylvania. We’re probably from a borough perspective in the top 2% of population. So we are right around 20,000 people as of our last census. The people who are moving into our community have I don’t know if it’s in the water, I don’t know if they find us on some specialized magazine where it’s like we are looking for the most vibrant and exciting people who wanna be involved and engaged and live in a community where people take care of each other and everybody moving in fits that description.

Stormy Bell (17:32): Oh, that’s amazing. That’s amazing. I think I skipped one of my questions and it kind of segues a little bit. I hear all the things that you’re involved in. Why do you do that? Why do you volunteer?

Mayor Peter Urscheler (17:46): Why do I volunteer? Oh my gosh. I think a lot of it has to do with my parents. Unfortunately I’ve lost both of my parents now. I was their caregiver at the end of their lives. I think the impact that they had in their community and in our community when I was growing up, you know, they were like the mom and dad of all my friends. They were everyone’s mom and dad. I look back on their lives and they really had this profound impact because they did little things for the community in a really meaningful way. To me, that’s just, I just hope to carry on that legacy. I just want to make an impact in someone’s life. I’m not even sure, you know, I just want to think that somebody’s life was better because I was here. I want to think maybe that the world could be just a tiny little bit better because of me being here. That’s, I think, ultimately my goal.

I really [take] so much joy in seeing and being part of, and experiencing kind of community in this way volunteering. It really is a way to bring people together to understand people’s stories. I think it makes for such a rich and vibrant experience. It has enriched my life more than I think I’ve ever put out. I feel so blessed and so honored that really, I feel like I’ve gotten so much more out of it than perhaps even I’m putting into it. It just drives me to want to do more. I just, I love it. I guess it’s just part of me and like part of that fabric.

Mayor Peter Urscheler (19:39): I just want to make our little world  as good as it can be. I think also for me, it’s an opportunity to help young people. I think one of the unique things, of course, being mayor is getting to interact with young people, but when you can hear their stories and you can give them the ability to be heard and to be active in the community, I think it really gives them ownership over the place which they live in. To me, that’s how we sustain Phoenixville. That’s how we keep going as a community, and we keep that spirit that we’ve always had, which is to take care of one another and to take care of our neighbors. It’s kind of, I think, the Phoenixville way.

Stormy Bell (20:21): That’s incredible. I have friends that live in Phoenixville. That’s how, in one way I’ve met you and I just love the spirit that comes out of it. You talked about the community working together, just seeing their involvement in the community. I work with Chester County Futures and we’re in the school districts in Phoenixville and just helping people see the best of themselves and set the trajectory for their own lives. It’s just been so rewarding being in and around the whole Phoenixville area. I’m so glad that you’re leading the charge on that, so to say.

Mayor Peter Urscheler (20:59): Oh, thank you.

Stormy Bell (21:02): I would like you to share a story of impact whether from your bird’s eye view as a mayor or the nonprofits that you volunteer with, or you’re the, you know, development director with just a story of impact that you’ve seen the world change for good.

Mayor Peter Urscheler (21:26): It’s so interesting, I could sit here I think for hours and I could give you individual stories. What I would say I think if I look at it from the perspective of being a mayor and looking across all of [the] nonprofits that I work with, it’s that sometimes I think our challenges as society are, we believe we have to have a full answer. We have to be able to solve some giant social issue. That can become daunting. I think sometimes we give up when that’s how we approach it. What I would say is that the greatest impact is doing small things in a meaningful way. When everyone in your community, and this is really truly how I feel about the people in our community, when everyone in our community is doing and giving and serving in whatever way they can, that’s when we move forward.

What I would say is that oftentimes what has the most profound impact on someone’s life is not some giant thing. I mean I wish I could just go out and buy people houses. I wish we could have millions and millions of dollars to just give away and fix every issue that exists. When you’re able to help somebody access a service when you are able to, sometimes it just takes helping somebody get a pair of shoes to do a specific job or transportation or connecting someone in the community with a service they didn’t realize was there or available to them. It’s making sure that whatever services are provided are provided with dignity and kindness. At the end of the day, it’s really that we are able to connect with one another.

Mayor Peter Urscheler (23:16): I always say to people what’s unique about Phoenixville is, and as we’re talking about it right, people might be like envisioning Phoenixville as this picture perfect community, and sometimes, honestly, I think it is right out of a Hallmark movie. It is. It’s beautiful. The streets are perfect, the trees have lights in them, you’ve got a bookstore, you’ve got a coffee shop. People are just enjoying their lives. At the same time, we acknowledge that there are challenges in our community and we’re not afraid of those challenges. I never want someone in Phoenixville to be embarrassed to ask for help, because we have help and assistance here. The reality is, none of us ever know today I might be providing the support and tomorrow I may need the support. I think that’s really us as people. That’s us as a community, that’s us as neighbors.

Really when we consider impact I think of a couple different stories, families who’ve been impacted with their children. Just by somebody providing, like I said, a pair of shoes to help somebody get a new job, a neighbor checking in on them and bringing them maybe like a casserole or something to eat. Sometimes just that warm meal just really has that connection that people need. Sometimes also just overcoming loneliness. During the pandemic, we had volunteers who would just call all of our seniors to check in on them, especially the ones we knew were most vulnerable and living by themselves. I think that’s the most important thing is that every day the way that we live our lives and the joy that we bring into the world has an impact on people. I would encourage people, don’t think that you have to solve some giant issue but just do everyday things in a meaningful way and you’ll have a tremendous impact on your community and on the people you serve. All those little pieces of impact will add up to having that giant impact that we want to have.

Stormy Bell (25:13): Oh, amazing. I love that simple act of kindness. Just helping your neighbor going across the street and helping someone. It’s amazing. Well, thank you. All right, here’s a question. I think it’s fun. Some people don’t, but I do. Can you share a blooper something, not necessarily something that went wrong, but something that didn’t go as planned and what you learned from it

Mayor Peter Urscheler (25:42): Before I started working at Ann’s Heart, I actually used to volunteer there. We do a monthly, it’s called Pay It Forward Cafe, and it’s a dignity model. What happens is we advertise it to the whole community, and people can sign up for a meal once a month, it’s a hot meal made from scratch. When I say scratch, I mean literally like the potatoes are being peeled. Like mashed potatoes are not instant. They’re being peeled by volunteers and cut up. People go on and they register. If they’re able to or they want to make a donation then they’re able to. If not, no questions asked, happy to give anybody food a warm meal once a month that they’d want. One of our first Pay It Forward Cafes, and we always feed probably close to 350 individuals, we were making chicken pot pie.

Now I used to have a little show online, which was The Mayor’s Kitchen. Basically people would come and teach me how to cook. I was never the cook myself, but people would come and teach me their recipes. It was funny ’cause it kind of helped me become more comfortable in the kitchen. So we’re in there and all these people are lining up outside and we recognize that we don’t have enough pie crust, so we had to start making it from scratch. I went from A never having made a chicken pot pie period to having to make dozens of pie crust from scratch. We’re running around, people are going to every store you can dream of to buy them out of flour and desperately trying to get the ingredients to make the pie crust, because we’d already bought the stores out of every pie crust, so now we’re trying to make it from scratch.

Mayor Peter Urscheler (27:34): There are people literally lined outside as I’m rolling out, there’s like a team of us rolling out dough and trying to get it out as quickly as possible to people like waiting in the parking lot. The other funny thing is, again I don’t generally cook at home because I don’t have to feed that many people, so sometimes it’s easier to go out out. I’ve never like cooked a Thanksgiving turkey and this last year we had 750 meals that went out for Thanksgiving. I actually have a ServSafe certificate, I’m a registered food manager so I know all the science behind it and all the regulations and things to keep you safe, but I’ve never actually cooked a turkey.

We’re trying to time it and figure out when we need to cook these turkeys. I went from having never cooked a turkey to like, now I can prepare the turkey. We cooked 112 turkeys in the course of two days, eight at a time. I can also now carve a turkey in eight minutes or less. Literally for two days, our kitchen manager and I, and I mean a team of volunteers. I can’t take any credit doing this alone, but our kitchen manager and I like, I don’t even think we wanted to eat turkey on Thanksgiving I’d seen so much turkey. It was so much fun though. It’s funny, you know, at the time you’re like pulling your hair out, you’re like how am I gonna get enough turkey for 750 people?

Mayor Peter Urscheler (29:07): The kitchen I’m telling you about, this is not some giant kitchen. I mean, it’s a commercially licensed kitchen but this is like maybe slightly larger than your kitchen at home. We do have convection ovens, which helps speed the process along and we can cook eight turkeys at a time, but this is not some giant, warehouse kitchen. It’s just amazing. That’s one of the things I love about volunteering too, is you just never know what you may be doing. One day you’re like putting things in envelopes, putting stamps on them, and the next day you’re cooking turkeys.

Stormy Bell (29:43): All right so wait a minute. I love that. What did you learn from it?

Mayor Peter Urscheler (29:47): Oh my gosh. From all of it, it’s the power of resilience. People are resilient. It’s like, you know what, we are resilient and we are creative. If there’s a problem, we’re gonna figure it out and we’re gonna move forward and we’re gonna help everyone in our community have the best time ever. Honestly, if it doesn’t work out perfectly, we’re gonna laugh about it and just keep going.

Stormy Bell (30:10): That’s awesome. Okay, here we are. We’re almost at the end of our conversation. I invite you to love on your community whatever aspect of it you want to just love on it. Why should people check out Phoenixville? Why should they get involved with Ann’s Heart and volunteer? Just love on them.

Mayor Peter Urscheler (30:32): Oh my gosh. I mean, constantly people [ask], what’s the best thing about Phoenixville? We have a beautiful place to live, super walkable, beautiful historic buildings. We have all these great festivals and events, but really at the end of the day what makes this so special is the people of this community. I’m an only child. I kind of told you at the beginning that both my mom and dad were much older. I didn’t tell you that part, but my parents were much older when they had me. Unfortunately I lost both of them. I lost my mom in ‘14 and I lost my dad in 2018. My relatives are scattered throughout the world, my blood relatives, so really this is all I have. Phoenixville is my family, and they’ve adopted me, they’ve taken me in, they let me serve in this really unique and special capacity.

It’s the people of this community, that’s what makes Phoenixville special. The buildings and everything could, I mean, I don’t want this to happen [but] they could burn to the ground and this, this community would come together and figure out a way to keep moving forward. That’s what’s special about Phoenixville. It’s not the festivals. I mean, the festivals bring us together. They mark time, they’re part of our celebrations but it’s the people. It’s the young people. Oh my gosh, I’m so inspired every time I talk to a young person in our community, when I go to visit a school or I visit a club or an organization that’s made up in our school district.

Mayor Peter Urscheler (32:08): Our students are so caring and concerned. They care so much about each other. They care so much about taking care of each other, about being kind and making sure that everyone in our community feels safe, celebrated, and loved. That’s what’s special about this community. It’s the people. It’s the people. Honestly, that’s what drives me to do what I do. When my mom and dad died, it just felt natural that I could find a way to continue caring about my family and it’s my Phoenixville family. To me, that’s the greatest legacy that my parents left me was a legacy of care and kindness. I just hope to keep doing that every single day and serving in whatever way Phoenixville wants me to serve.

Stormy Bell (32:58): Ah, that’s beautiful. Thank you. Mayor Pete, thank you for being my guest today on The Art of Volunteering. I so enjoyed hearing your passion for Phoenixville and hearing about everyone who has worked so hard to make the community what it is. I invite all of you back next time on The Art of Volunteering. Thank you for sharing your time with me today. Have a great day.

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