Our Beginnings

In 1978, Sister Mary Paul Janchill and Sister Geraldine Tobia, two Sisters of the Good Shepherd with extensive social work and community development experience, came to Sunset Park with a belief in the dignity of families and the value of living in community. Out of a 6-month long needs assessment came a commitment for sponsorship by St. Christopher’s Home (now SCO Family of Services), a non-profit social services agency, and a decision to open the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park (CFL) and provide intensive family-centered services. 

Early on, the center was the subject of a cover article by Roger Rosenblatt, in Time Magazine, December 1985. Center for Family Life received the Family Honors Award, conferred by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “Life Lines” Community Arts Project at M.S. 136 received an “Excellence in Educational Initiatives Award” from the Brooklyn Borough President’s office. Peg McCartt Hess, Brenda G. McGowan and Michael Botsko authored Nurturing the One, Supporting the Many:  The Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.  “A Brooklyn Family Tale,” a documentary about the Center’s relationship with a struggling family, aired on Public Television. The film was written and produced by Roger Weisberg and Murray Nossel of Public Policy Productions. “Life Lines” Community Arts Project received the national “Coming Up Taller” Award at the White House. “Why Can’t We Be A Family Again?” a documentary film about Center for Family Life, was written and produced by Roger Weisberg and Murray Nossel of Public Policy Productions. This film was nominated for an Academy Award.

For over 40 years, Center for Family Life in Sunset Park operated as a program of SCO Family of Services (SCO) a multiservice human services agency. In 2021, CFLSP launched as an independent not-for profit corporation positioned to respond to the evolving needs of the community and its families. 

Center for Family Life Timeline

1978Center for Family Life opened in Sunset Park, providing individual, group and family counseling and a drop-in afterschool center for children.
1979A Community School Project at P.S. 1 was established, offering social, educational, recreational and artistic programs for children, teens and adults through afterschool programs, an evening teen center, a summer day camp and parent activities.   The Sunset Park Emergency Food Center opened in collaboration with neighborhood churches and organizations.   The Center was a founding member of Community Board #7’s Human Services Cabinet, an umbrella group of public and voluntary service providers concerned with the Sunset Park community.
1980Thrift Shop and Service Center opened to house the Emergency Food Program, Thrift Shop and an Advocacy Clinic offering crisis intervention and assistance to families in need.   A second Community School Project was established at P.S. 172 (this program later merged with the Community School Project at P.S. 1, allowing for more extensive programming with greater resources).
1981An Adult Employment Services Program was established to offer job training and placement to unemployed residents of Sunset Park.
1982“Life Lines” Improvisational Family Life Theater Company was initiated in the P.S. 1 Teen Center.
1983A third Community School Project opened at P.S. 314.   Youth Leadership and Counselor-In-Training programs were implemented at P.S. 1 and P.S. 314, providing teens with volunteer work experience, and opportunities to be role models for younger children.
1985Center for Family Life was the subject of a cover article by Roger Rosenblatt, in Time Magazine, December 1985.
1987The Foster Grandparents Program was incorporated in preventive and school-based services, engaging senior adults as parenting role models and mentors for children.
1988A small satellite Foster Care pilot program was created to allow foster children to remain in Sunset Park by encouraging a partnership between birth parents and neighborhood-based foster families.
1990The city’s Department of Employment awarded the Center a contract to coordinate a Summer Youth Employment Program.   “Life Lines” expanded to a Community Arts Project and moved to M.S. 136, providing afterschool and summer arts instruction for middle and high school youth.  A pilot in-school project combining social group work, the arts and education was initiated in partnership with teachers and students during the school day.
1993The Center was designated as the lead agency for a Beacon School Project at P.S. 314, formalizing collaboration with various community agencies and allowing for program expansion.
1997The Center was awarded an Annenberg Planning Grant for implementation of a comprehensive interdisciplinary arts partnership during the school day with teachers and students at M.S. 136.   Family Camping Project developed to provide families with a unique recreational family experience.   “Child Support,” a feature article written about the Center by Michael Shapiro, appeared in New York Magazine. This later led to a chapter in his book, Solomon’s Sword.
1998Summer Youth Employment expanded to include Youth-to-Work activities during the school year, with educational and social components as well as internship experiences.
1999The Neighborhood Center Program at P.S. 314 was established with athletic, artistic and family-focused programs for the entire Sunset Park community, offered outdoors in the schoolyard during most months and indoors during the winter.
2000Center for Family Life was awarded the Presidential Points of Light Award, “in recognition of Excellence in Community Service Directed Toward Solving Community Problems.”   Center for Family Life received the Family Honors Award, conferred by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.   Good Works, a monograph published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and written by Susan Blank, summarized a 3-year research project by the Columbia University School of Social Work.   “Life Lines” Community Arts Project at M.S. 136 received an “Excellence in Educational Initiatives Award” from the Brooklyn Borough President’s office.
2001The Adult Employment Program relocated to 443 39th Street to accommodate program expansion.
2002The Center’s Earned Income Tax Credit Services assisted hundreds of residents with their tax returns, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars coming back to families in Sunset Park.   The Community Service Program (Thrift Shop, Food Program and Advocacy Clinic) relocated to a larger space at 5505 4th Avenue in order to increase services.   Peg McCartt Hess, Brenda G. McGowan and Michael Botsko authored Nurturing the One, Supporting the Many:  The Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.   “A Brooklyn Family Tale,” a documentary about the Center’s relationship with a struggling family, aired on Public Television. The film was written and produced by Roger Weisberg and Murray Nossel of Public Policy Productions.
2003“Life Lines” Community Arts Project in-school interdisciplinary program expanded through a partnership with M.S. 821, co-located in the M.S. 136 building. “Life Lines” Community Arts Project received the national “Coming Up Taller” Award at the White House. “Why Can’t We Be A Family Again?” a documentary film about Center for Family Life, was written and produced by Roger Weisberg and Murray Nossel of Public Policy Productions. This film was nominated for an Academy Award.
2004Center for Family Life celebrated its 25th Anniversary of providing comprehensive services to children, youth, and families in Sunset Park. A “Single Stop” program was established at Community Service Program to provide legal assistance, financial advice and other benefits. The Youth Employment Program expanded to include career exploration, internship opportunities, and academic support during the school year.
2005The P.S. 1 Community School Project became a Beacon site and established a Neighborhood Center program. The Youth Employment Program launched the SPIN (Supporting Potential in our Neighborhood) program to provide job readiness training, peer support groups, and GED referrals for young adults who are disconnected from school and the world of work.
2006Center for Family Life became a lead organizer of the Sunset Park High School Task Force, a catalyst in the groundswell of community support and media coverage for the long-needed public high school in Sunset Park. “Life Lines” Community Arts Project was featured in a Best Practices Gallery at the Afterschool Alliance and Citizens’ Schools Reimagining Afterschool conference in Washington, D.C. Center for Family Life became a founding member of the Sunset Park Coalition for New Immigrants, a partnership among Sunset Park/South Brooklyn organizations that seeks to address the needs of recent immigrants through research, advocacy, linkage building and social action. The Center helped a group of immigrant women to launch the Sí Se Puede!/ We Can Do It! Women’s Cooperative, a housecleaning business designed to create living wage jobs that are carried out in a safe environment and to promote social supports and educational opportunities for its members. P.S. 314 closed and was replaced by two schools that share the same building, P.S. 503 and P.S. 506. Center for Family Life’s Beacon Program continues to serve youth and families from both schools and the surrounding neighborhood.
2007The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs published A Schoolyard in Brooklyn: Strengthening Families and Communities through the Innovative Use of Public Space, a report exploring the development of the Center’s Neighborhood Center Program at P.S. 503/P.S. 506 and its potential as a model for reclaiming poorly used urban schoolyards and parks.
2008“Life Lines” Community Arts Project celebrated its 25th anniversary with a retrospective production at the BMCC/Tribeca Performing Arts Center. Building on the success of the Sí Se Puede!/ We Can Do It! Women’s Cooperative, the Adult Employment program supported the organization of a new worker cooperative, Beyond Care, providing childcare services. 2008 marks the Center’s 30th anniversary of providing comprehensive services in Sunset Park.
2009Center for Family Life received a 2009 Families Count: Family Strengthening Award from the United Neighborhood Centers of America (UNCA) and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The award recognized the Center’s outstanding work in connecting immigrant families to economic opportunities through the innovative cooperative and entrepreneurial strategies of the Adult Employment Program. The Cooperative Development Program launched a collective, Émigré Gourmet, providing catering and cooking lessons. The We Can Do It!/ Sí Se Puede! Women’s Cooperative was recognized at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ 2009 Public Policy Conference, Latinos Leading in a Global Society. Cooperative members traveled to Washington to participate in the conference’s closing session, where Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez highlighted the cooperative as an example of innovative Latino entrepreneurs in the green economy. After more than three decades of community advocacy, the newly-constructed Sunset Park High School – our neighborhood’s first public high school – welcomes its first class. Staff from across the Center’s programs collaborate with SPHS teachers in the development of an advisory program during the school day. The Center also launches a new afterschool program for 9th grade students, and our Youth Employment Program relocates to the high school building. The PS 1 Beacon Program began a 3-year involvement with the Beacon Young Adolescent (BYA) initiative, sponsored by the Youth Development Institute. As a documentation site, the program developed a promising social school work practice, presented at a Beacon conference in San Francisco.
2010The Center received a 2010 Organizational Excellence Award from the National Network for Social Work Managers in recognition of our collaborative leadership model. PS 1 participants and staff led workshops at local and national youth development conferences, including the 2010 Beacon of Lights conference in New York and Coalition for Community Schools 2010 National Forum in Philadelphia. Their conference presentations explored the use of social group work to foster leadership development and build community. The Youth Development Institute series Practices to Keep in After-School and Youth Programs featured the Center’s programs and staff in three articles exploring approaches to building young people’s capacity, growing staff from within, and creating strong community linkages.
2011“Life Lines” was recognized by the NYC Department of Youth and Community Development for improving participants’ literacy skills through a successful tutoring program. The Center created a new parenting support group for Chinese immigrant parents, Chinese Parents in America, based off of the success of Parents Beyond Borders. Former “Life Lines” participant Adepero Oduye starred in the movie “Pariah” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Sponsored by the City University of New York (CUNY) and the Youth Development Institute, PS 1 Beacon Director Hélène Onserud led training courses for practitioners from youth development agencies.
2012A new Sunset Park Coop was created, Golden Steps Elder Care Cooperative, providing non-medical elder care companionship. The Center opened two new school-based programs in Sunset Park at PS 169 and PS 971. The Social Work with Groups Journal published an article, written by ParentShip Program staff, titled “Parents Beyond Borders: A Social Group Work Model for Supporting Immigrant Parents and Building Solidarity.” After publication, Program Coordinator Gretchen Lord was invited to give a presentation at the Advancement of Social Work with Groups (AASWG) Annual Symposium in spring 2012. As part of the BYA initiative, PS 1 Beacon Director Hélène Onserud and three other Beacon staff provided a training program in San Francisco on the use of social group work in youth.
2013Sunset Park High School saw the graduation ceremony of its first-ever senior class. The keynote address was given by Mayor Bloomberg and words of encouragement from Chancellor Walcott praised all 220 graduating seniors. Of those seniors, 2 received mayoral awards and 76 received scholarships from their colleges. The Center’s New York City-wide Cooperative Development Initiative launched with funding by the NY City Council, New York Women’s Foundation and Surdna Foundation. This project extends our cooperative incubation work to other immigrant communities.  In recognition of our work with cooperatives in Sunset Park and beyond, the Center received a 2nd place Innovative Nonprofit Award from the NY Center for Economic Opportunity. The Center opened a new school based afterschool and summer camp program at PS 94 in Fall. 2013 marks the Center’s 35th anniversary of providing comprehensive services in Sunset Park.
2014In spring 2014, Center for Family Life moved to our newly renovated main office location at 443 – 39th Street. Another Sunset Park Coop, Trusty Amigos, was launched to provide pet care services. We initiated a new College Success Mentoring Program that links recent high school graduates who are now in college with mentors who are older students attending their same campuses.  Mentoring is also provided for CFL staff in college.
2015The Center hosted a pop-up enrollment site for the IDNYC initiative. More than 2,500 people came to the CFL main office to apply for city-issued identification cards. Two new Sunset Park Coops launched: United Handymen, a home repair business, and Sunset Scholars, a tutoring business. Sunset Park High School was one of two NYC schools selected as a School of Opportunity by the National Education Policy Center. This national program, funded by the Ford Foundation and the NEA Foundation, recognizes outstanding schools where all students have rich opportunities to succeed.
2016A new platform for coops, Coopify, was incorporated into the Cooperative Development Program. Si Se Puede, the first cooperative business organized by CFL and immigrant workers, began operating independently at the end of FY 2016, after ten years of remarkable and hard-won growth. Center for Family Life piloted its Amigas program to provide free, Spanish-language elder care services to isolated, low-income neighborhood residents. Helene Onserud was honored with the prestigious PASEsetter Award. PASEsetter Awards are given to afterschool educators who demonstrate outstanding commitment, energy, and creativity in their work, and who achieve excellence in and exhibit true devotion to improving the lives of the young people in out-of-school time.
2017After over a year of development and testing, our Cooperative Development Program launched Up & Go, an online platform for customers to book home services with worker cooperatives. The Center’s cooperative development training work was expanded through a partnership with La Colmena, a community jobs center in Staten Island. The result of this work was two new cooperatives: Love & Learn, a childcare business, and Brightly, a housecleaning service. After 9 years, Beyond Care, a 39 member child care cooperative, moved to full independence. The Center’s Cooperative Program also launched a Leadership Institute for current Coop Members to engage in learning about coop management and administration alongside our coop developers. CFL launched a new Sunset Leaders afterschool initiative at Sunset Park High School, with opportunities for youth to spearhead service projects, lead afterschool clubs, and contribute to arts leadership troupes.
2018With support from Brooklyn Community Foundation, Center for Family Life launched its Sanctuary Families Program to engage Sunset Park parents and local Brooklyn community members in response to the long-term child care needs of immigrant parents. The project offers a series of Parents’ Rights Workshops, along with training and certification for neighborhood-based kinship and foster parents prepared to serve as sanctuary families for children of parents facing removal from the US. The Center’s ParentShip Program, which offers parenting support groups with unique curricula developed to address the needs of Sunset Park immigrant families, expanded its classes to be offered in Chinese. The new Chinese-language “Operation Parenting” curriculum was developed in partnership with Fordham University Professor Fuhua Zhai and helps immigrant parents build skills to address their children’s problematic behaviors in school. Center for Family Life’s Cooperative Franchise Initiative incorporated Cooportunity Inc., a 501c3 that became a franchisor in September 2018, holding the Brightly® and NannyBee® brands and systems to scale worker cooperatives in NY State. Five existing cooperatives: Golden Steps, Trusty Amigos, Sunset Scholars, Pa’lante and Action OSH reached their goal of becoming independent from Center for Family Life. “Life Lines” Community Arts Project celebrated its 35th Anniversary with an original teen-created improvisational production of “Stand Up, Sunset!”, bringing to life the struggles and vitality of our dynamic community.
2019Center for Family Life expanded the reach of our Sanctuary Families Program by creating and publicly releasing a conversation guide to navigate difficult discussions regarding family separation. The Program also received additional funding for Parents’ Rights Workshops and engaged Sanctuary Volunteers to provide additional support and advocacy to CFL’s clients who have been impacted by detention or deportation. The design of the Brooklyn Public Library Interim Branch in Sunset Park, a collaborative project between Life Lines participants and Leroy Street Studio, was recognized with an award from the Municipal Arts Society in the Best Adaptive Reuse category for a project that demonstrates exceptional creativity in adaptive reuse of an existing building or structure. Center for Family Life’s Cooperative Franchise Initiative welcomed a third Brightly® outlet in East Harlem. Brightly® is the first worker cooperative franchise system in the United States. Up & Go, a project of CFL’s Cooperative Development Program, was selected as a Regional Winner for the US and Canada at the MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge, a competition to recognize innovators using technology to create economic opportunity for workers, and will compete for a Global Grand Prize of $250,000.
2020The Center for Family Life rose to meet the challenges of the covid-19 pandemic, which had devastating impacts on our Sunset Park community, and simultaneously led to severe cuts in public funding. All Center for Family Life staff were trained in online instruction and virtual platforms. This allowed CFL to reach new clients and provide more in-depth services in programs like tutoring, where new students sought help with remote learning. As our community’s needs shifted in the face of the pandemic, CFL’s food pantry nearly doubled its hours, serving 10,000 meals a week. We were able to leverage over $1 million in funding and donations for client cash assistance, which provided crucial support for the undocumented members of our community who were otherwise ineligible for federal stimulus payments. We also added an on-site financial counselor to our staff to offer our clients financial counseling and coaching. New funding from the Public Bank NYC campaign in December allowed CFL to provide additional guardianship planning workshops, a program of CFL’s Sanctuary Families Project that works to address the long-term childcare needs of immigrant parents.