SUNSET PARK — When Sisters Mary Paul Janchill and Geraldine Tobia, RGS, founded the Center for Family Life in 1978, they didn’t envision themselves as heroines swooping into the neighborhood to save residents from poverty and gang violence.
Far from it, in fact.
“They did not see themselves as coming here to save everybody,” said Julia Jean-Francois, the co-director of the non-profit agency. “They came to Sunset Park with the intention of living there and becoming a full part of the community. They viewed all of the residents as friends deserving of respect.”
Four decades ago, Sunset Park was a low-income community where street gangs had taken hold. However, it was and still is a neighborhood filled with loving families and deeply religious Catholics. Sisters Mary Paul and Geraldine reached out to those families in love and partnership.
“They felt that Sunset Park had not been attended to [by city officials]. They wanted to help,” Jean-Francois said.
The two sisters started the Center for Family Life in 1978, setting up two programs — a family counseling service and a foster care program — and operated out of a room in the rectory of St. Michael’s Church.
Within a few years, the sisters’ work became well known far outside of Sunset Park. The Center for Family Life was featured on the cover of Time magazine on Dec. 30, 1985, under the headline, “A Christmas Story.”
The center has grown considerably in size and scope over the past 43 years to encompass 90 full-time employees and 120 part-time workers who organize dozens of programs for children and adults, serving 15,000 people a year. The services include everything from a food pantry to tax preparation assistance.
Even with the growth, the center has sought to stay true to the vision of its founders, according to Jean-Francois, who has worked at the center for 17 years and serves as co-director alongside Julie Stein-Brockway.
Sister Geraldine died in 2000 at the age of 59. Sister Mary Paul was 88 years old when she died in 2009. Jean-Francois never met Sister Geraldine but she did work alongside Sister Mary Paul and admired her.
“She saw the grace in every single person. I have her picture in my office,” Jean-Francois said. “Sister Mary Paul used to say that she felt a sense of peace and of being at home when she walked down the street in Sunset Park.”
The Center for Family Life sponsors programs in seven schools in Sunset Park, including after-school centers. “We serve 1,500 children a day,” Jean-Francois said.
The center, which is now located at 443 39th St., operates under the umbrella of SCO Family of Services, a large non-profit that serves 60,000 underprivileged residents in New York City and on Long Island.
The center provides family counseling, employment programs, including classes on how to handle a job interview, help in applying for government benefits, legal assistance, tax preparation assistance, foster care, and sponsors a food pantry.
There are different eligibility criteria for each of the center’s programs.
“There is no fee for any of the programs we have,” Francois said. “The vast majority of the people we serve are low-income immigrants.”
Because it has been serving the community for four decades, the center has experienced a nice boomerang effect, Jean-Francois said. Many of its employees grew up in Sunset Park and took part in the center’s programs when they were young.
“One program we are very proud of is our Ladder of Leadership program. Many of the people we employ were children in our program,” Jean-Francois said.
Karla Herrera, a social worker who supervises the Comprehensive After School System (COMPASS) program at P.S. 94, was introduced to the center while taking part in the Life Lines program as a student at Charles Dewey Middle School years ago. In 2002, she worked as a summer intern with the center and joined the staff in 2014 after completing her Master’s Degree in social work.
COMPASS is an after-school program whose goal is to guide youngsters in a positive direction in their lives. Life Lines is a performance arts program designed to draw out the talents of young people.
“I am originally from Venezuela,” Herrera said. “When I first came here, I did not have a mastery of the language. Because of the center, I felt a sense of community. They helped guide me. Social work has a pay-it-forward mentality. My role is to make sure the program at P.S. 94 is run smoothly and that the children feel safe and cared for.”
During the pandemic, the center has strived to continue its programs.
“During COVID, we kept our food pantry open every single day,” Jean-Francois said. “We are trying hard to be responsive to the needs of the community.”