How to Change with a Neighborhood

May 14, 2024  |  by Cody Gohl   |  

In honor of Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, we are celebrating Food Bank member agencies that uplift and serve our AAPI neighbors across the five boroughs. One of these agencies is the Center for Family Life, which operates in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. 

The Center was originally established in the late 1970s to support families in the neighborhood, the majority of whom were Spanish-speaking. Flash forward several decades, and while the Center and its mission have stayed intact, they've evolved to serve a new demographic Mandarin-speaking New Yorkers, who now make up half of the community population. 

To reach these new neighbors, the Center for Family Life not only adapted its programming, but innovated solutions to empower them with the food, services, and specific resources they need to thrive. See how in our interview below,  which covers the power of translation, the importance of person-to-person outreach, and a scamming problem plaguing Brooklynites in Sunset Park. 

Center For Family Life 3A Center for Family Life community member receiving fresh radishes and eggs at a distribution. 

When and why were you first established? How has your mission changed to serve New Yorkers today?

Cathy Vargas, Community Services Program Director: The Center was established in the 70s and 80s in New York City, so there was a lot going on *laughs*. Our approach has always been very tied to the neighborhood and originally began with a focus on family counseling. Since then, we've grown and become  well known here in the neighborhood. Instead of expanding our services out, we've expanded our services deeper into our community. We now have an after-school program; two neighborhood centers; an enrichment center; a food pantry; benefits access, legal aid, and adult employment services; ESOL classes, work readiness programs... pretty much a one stop shop for everyone. 

When we started, we were primarily Spanish-speaking, but as we saw the AAPI community grow here in Sunset Park, our clientele became evenly split between those who speak Spanish and those who speak Mandarin. We started incorporating more staff and case planners into our work and now almost everyone here is bilingual, either with English/Spanish or English/Mandarin.

Center for Family LifeVisitors to the Center are growing, thanks to rising grocery prices and an influx of newly arrived New Yorkers to the neighborhood. 

What are some of the unique struggles faced by the AAPI New Yorkers you serve?

Tenzin Dhadon, Benefit Enroller: Many of our AAPI neighbors don't realize there are benefit services they can access for free. A coworker and I started going out to Sunset Park itself and approaching community members to let them know that they can come to us for food and help accessing things like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). We learned that there were a lot of scammers in the neighborhood telling folks that they had to pay for these services, which is not true

We've been able to build trust with AAPI families in the neighborhood, who now come to us for food and benefit enrollment and other services. Even the small thing of being able to read a letter, provide a simple translation for folks... it makes a huge difference. The person-to-person approach has really helped us spread the word about what we do

Center For Family Life 5Fresh produce is a staple of the Center, as are a plethora of other services designed to empower its neighbors. 

What has it been like to greet new families and faces at the  Center? 

Leomaris Fernandez, Food Pantry Supervisor: As more Mandarin-speaking neighbors started coming to us, I tried using some of the language on the line. Google translate was my best friend! *laughs*. When you're asking for their name, number, or how they're doing and you're speaking their language, folks cry, laugh, they want to hug you... that's how we started getting our regulars. When you don't know the language and you're trying to get food, it can be really scary. Then here comes this little Spanish girl speaking to you in Mandarin and it's this moment of "Wow, she knows how to ask me what I need." Sunset Park is still a large Hispanic community, so some of our clients are even trying to learn a little Spanish. 

Tenzin: Le had a Mandarin-speaking client who also happened to speak Spanish, so they worked together to communicate with our other neighbors. The truth is that we lean on our clients for support, too. 

Center For Family Life 2Food distributions happen every day at the Center for Family Life, with special distributions for older New Yorkers and newly arrived families. 

How do you stay motivated to serve your community, even through all its changes? 

Cathy: For Le and I, we grew up in the neighborhood, we’re kind of used to it. When we see families that are paying for benefits, we get angry, we go "No, we're not doing that!" When we see newly arrived kids without jackets, we're parents, we're going to figure that out, we're going to help this community, our community, in any way possible. Sunset Park has always been an immigrant community and though those populations might change over time, we are first and foremost a community of mutual aid. If we can't figure it out, we figure it out

We are beyond humbled to partner with and provide food to community-based organizations like Center for Family Life that are doing the work to empower their neighbors with the food, resources, and services they need to thrive. Click here to learn more about and support these vital organizations

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