All in the Family

FOR 125 YEARS, FAMILY CENTERS, INC. AND ITS PREDECESSOR ORGANIZATIONS HAVE BEEN DEFINING THE WORD “COMMUNITY” BY SUPPORTING THOSE IN NEED. Although their services have evolved over time, the underlying credo remains the same: “From the womb to the tomb” was how early leader Jean Gregory liked to put it.

Today, Family Centers operates in four municipalities: Greenwich, Stamford, Darien and New Canaan. The agency’s three programming hubs, comprising more than twenty separate programs, each work to help people in different ways: with childhood nurturing (Bright Beginnings), adult empowerment (Fostering Independence) and strengthening the family unit (Families In Crisis). “We were really family-focused from the very beginning,” says Bob Arnold, the current executive director. “It’s in our DNA.”

Bob the Builder
Under his reign Bob Arnold has taken Family Centers’ operating budget from $400,000 to $13 million. And it’s clear that he has no plans of stopping there

In September 1977, Bob Arnold came to Family Centers as an intern fresh out of the Columbia University School of Social Work. He anticipated a few months of hands-on experience at the tiny service agency before moving on.

What he didn’t imagine was that Family Centers would take him on a journey in which he would—directly or indirectly—touch thousands of lives. As CEO of Family Centers since 1982, Arnold has overseen a period of exponential growth. Recently, we sat down with the guitar-playing extrovert to take a stroll down memory lane.

I began here for three or four years as a clinical social worker. I did a lot of work with adolescent boys. When I came here, I started to do a lot of group work. There was a need for groups, and I did a lot of it. I also did one-on-one, family sessions, the full range of clinical stuff that was being done at that point in time. I took a holistic approach to the work. Everything is connected to everything else.

I had worked for a few years in a private psychiatric hospital and was exposed to the management side. I knew I would want to explore that at some point—I didn’t think I’d be a clinician forever.

When I became CEO, we had a budget of $400,000, 65 percent from the United Way. We delivered everything we did out of this one building. We had probably sixteen to eighteen people working here. Today we’re delivering our services out of fifty-one locations, we have over 200 people working here, we’ve got twenty-five programs and a $13 million budget.

Everywhere. All levels of government, fees from clients and lots of philanthropy. It’s a three-legged stool.

I would not have envisioned that we would be a player in the health-care field, like with our new health clinic at the Wilbur Peck housing project. Also in 1982, I would not have envisioned we would have a specialty arm working in the bereavement area, as we do with the Den for Grieving Kids and the Center For HOPE, which do a lot of work with people who have experienced loss.

We run programs out of community centers, Town Hall, almost everywhere people need our services. Back in 1982, we were more of a contained operation. What really happened, as we evolved, was that we exploded into the community.

There wouldn’t be a Family Centers today if it wasn’t for the people of Greenwich. They have nurtured it and supported it in every possible way throughout all these decades. The work we do in Greenwich is a product of the caring and nurturing population that lives here.


Determination, Vision and Strength
A look back at how it began and the women who made it all happen

The red brick house at the bottom of the cul-de-sac on Arch Street looks like a throwback, for that’s what it is. Built in 1932 by noted society matron Sarah “Elsie” Rockefeller, it was originally a town orphanage.

“It was all volunteer work,” recalled her daughter-in-law, Nancy “Nan” Rockefeller, in a 1978 Greenwich Library Oral History Project interview. “None of us had any experience with social work… .We just went and did it, used our common sense.”

Nan, along with another of Elsie’s daughters-in-law, Helen “Ditty” Rockefeller, who oversaw a day nursery at the top of the same cul-de-sac, took a hands-on approach. They appealed to the town finance board for funding. Nan was a self-described “investigator,” seeking out children in need around town. She recalled finding two orphans “out in the broiling sun tied to a tree.” Another time a matron ran off to Long Island with two young charges; Nan helped bring them back.

When Mrs. Rockefeller died in 1935, she left the Arch Street properties to her daughters-in-law. They combined the day nursery and orphans’ home to create Greenwich Center, complete with a staff of social workers. The agency that would become Family Centers, Inc. took unified form.

“We look back and think of all the terrible things that could have happened, but the Lord took care of us,” Nan recalled. “Nothing ever happened to any of the children, nor can I remember any terrible crisis.”

While now used as Family Centers’ headquarters, there is still a day-care operation at 40 Arch Street. You hear the children in the backyard playground through the open office windows, echoes of past generations of youngsters happily served. A first-floor plaque pays tribute to the Rockefellers’ support and the building’s origins as “Greenwich Shelter.”
Jean Gregory suffered neither fools nor self-doubt. As an undergraduate casting director at Bryn Mawr, she rejected freshman thespian Katharine Hepburn for a school play. “I was absolutely right, too,” Jean insisted in an interview with Greenwich Library’s Oral History Project in December 1974, by which time Hepburn had won three of her four Oscars.

As the first executive director of the Greenwich Center for Child & Family Service, precursor of Family Centers, Inc., Jean spent thirty-five years (1939–1974) molding the fledgling organization around a practical yet academically developed philosophy, inspired by her own extensive study of psychoanalysis.

“I was to be the boss of this whole wastepaper basket turned upside down, which I proceeded to be,” is how she recalled it in 1974. It did not go smoothly. According to her Oral History interview, all but one of the staff she inherited left during her first year in charge.

“They get so prissy and so goody-goody,” she said of social-work volunteers. “I never knew a goody-goody who got along in this world.” Unfazed, Jean pressed on, hiring new staff who shared her philosophy, and meanwhile expanding the Center’s service profile in day care.

“I won’t hire anybody without a sense of humor,” she explained. “They’ve got to work because they like it, not because they have to. And anyone who talks about overtime is out with me. You do it because you’re interested in what you’re doing.” She passed away in 2007.
For forty-eight years Adele Wenning was a bridge between past and future in the Family Centers story. A clinical social worker, she arrived in 1953. It was a time of great change for the agency, recalibrating its focus around the entire family, not just children.

“The purpose was to foster the develop-ment of wholesome family life in the community,” she explained in a 2000 Greenwich Library Oral History Project interview. “The whole family was considered.”

Adele became the second executive director in 1974, serving eight years before successfully nominating Bob Arnold to succeed her. She remained with the agency for the next two decades as a senior clinical supervisor, counseling couples and overseeing Family Centers’ nurseries and Head Start programming.

“There was a time when I became director where there were only women on it, and I tried to change that,” she said in the Oral History Project interview. “Now we have a lot of men and a lot of women.”

In 1963, Adele moved upstate, instructing public health nurses on mental-health treatment. She returned after a year. “I liked the way we did things better,” she said. “I still do.” She passed away in 2007.
Over the last half-century, much has changed at Family Centers. One constant remains: Joan Warburg. Since 1961, Joan has served on its Board of Directors; she is in fact its only lifetime member. Her legacy will last even longer, as Family Centers’ family daycare facility on Bridge Street bears her name: The Joan Melber Warburg Early Childhood Center.

Family Centers president, Bob Arnold, says the agency would not be what it is today without her vision: “Joan had a strong commitment to elevating and assisting young mothers. She was dogged about it. She pushed for a family daycare program back in the 1960s, when it wasn’t in vogue for mothers to be out of the house and working.”

Prior to that, day care was seen more as a matter of looking after problem children or children of broken families. As women entered the workplace in force, and to stay, Joan promoted a notion of day care to support two-working-parent households. It was not a popular idea at first, but with quiet tenacity, she persevered.

“She was the board member on the governance side who promoted this most rigorously,” Arnold explains. “Through the years, she has been a steadfast proponent of child care for working mothers. That was a really big cause of hers. That was why in 1993, when we opened our infant-toddler center, we named it in Joan’s honor.”


Firsthand Accounts of Help & Hope
The statistics are impressive, but it’s stories like these that paint the whole picture

There are no magic bullets for Angela Herrera’s degenerative disc disorder, nor the fibromyalgia that leaves her fatigued and in pain. Angela’s four-year-old daughter Kassandra was diagnosed earlier this year with an especially acute form of type 1 diabetes. No cures on the horizon there, either.

But on weekday mornings, when Kassandra is in bed and feeling low, Angela says just the thing to make it all right: “Your friends are waiting for you at school.” School is the Family Centers First Steps preschool, where Kassandra and brother Nicholas, three, are enrolled just a few yards from Angela’s apartment at Armstrong Court in Byram.

“Kassandra has really taken to school as a therapy,” Angela explains. “They make her feel special every day.”

Thirty-seven Greenwich children were enrolled in the preschool program last spring, all like Kassandra and Nicholas from low-income families. Another twenty-six children across a broader income spectrum attend the School Readiness program on the same site. All are taught basics in math, reading, and just getting along, in preparation for the challenging education path before them.

“We have single parents, immigrants from families where the parents work hourly, and families without cars who take the bus to get to work,” notes the woman in charge at First Steps, Judy Sheahan. “I know all the families here, and all the stories.”

Nicholas enjoys putting together puzzles in the Kids Corner, his mother says. Kassandra loves Circle Time, when she and her classmates sit down to form a circle and talk about what they are learning and about life.

Angela appreciates having her children in a safe place while she works on getting the help she needs for her medical condition, and also helping Kassandra and Nicholas’s father come back from Colombia. “For me, knowing my kids are so happy, that people are taking care of them so lovingly and supportively, that’s a great thing,” Angela says. “That makes me so happy.”
For many years after immigrating from Peru, Carmen Izaguirre-Medina found speaking English like stepping across a minefield. Just trying to say hello could collapse into an embarrassing struggle.

Now she is not only fluent, but she gives lessons. Earlier this year, the Byram babysitter completed an advanced English course offered by Family Centers’ Literacy Volunteers program. Today Carmen is still with Literacy Volunteers, only now she’s the one volunteering her time as an instructor. “I really see myself in my students, when I just came to the country,” she says. “I feel like I’m paying it forward.”

Carmen tutors three people at present, a woman from Colombia and a man and woman from Mexico. On Tuesday mornings they meet for two hours of one-on-one tutoring and classroom-style instruction. English can intimidate them, just as it did her, but she helps them work through it. “It’s a great opportunity to learn teaching techniques,” she notes.

Carmen’s dream is to become an accredited English-as-a-second-language instructor. “If you want to find a better life, better opportunities, you have to learn the language,” she says.
Juana Sanan and Walter Gomez are avid list-keepers. Whenever they have a question about rearing their one-year-old son, Louis Anthony Gomez, the Chickahominy couple writes it down.

The list is for Carolina Figueroa, a volunteer with Family Centers’ Nurturing Family Network. She provides parenting support for Louis and fifteen other children of new parents in Greenwich and Stamford.

“Every week, when she comes to the door, we have every kind of question for her,” Walter notes. “We know zero, nada. This is our first time as parents, so Carolina helps us a lot. Every single visit, she tells me something I’ve never heard before.”

Mostly they are simple questions, like making the transition from crib to bed, or potty training dos and don’ts. Sometimes the stakes get higher. Last April, a visit to the doctor revealed an abnormally high lead count in Louis’ blood—high enough to trigger severe developmental issues. A frightened Juana shared the results with Carolina.

“I supported her emotionally,” Carolina says. “We made a list of questions to ask the doctor. We went together to the town Department of Social Services to see what help they can get.”

There is no typical Network parent, Carolina says. She looks after both couples and single mothers; Latino, Arabic and American parents; domestic-abuse victims and spouses of the incarcerated.

For Juana and Walter, who immigrated here nine years ago from Guatemala, translation is critical. They also have material needs. Walter lost his job in the kitchen at Barcelona after the downtown Greenwich restaurant caught fire in March; he has relied on temporary work since.

Family Centers networks with other support agencies, like Neighbor to Neighbor and Mothers For Others, making sure Louis gets clothes, diapers and other essentials. “Having Family Centers with us is like having a big brother,” Juana says.
Four years ago, Greenwich High junior Alleyha Dannett seemed on the verge of a wonderful life. She was smart, bubbly and so service-driven that the Greenwich Boys & Girls Club named her 2013 Youth of the Year.

It all felt nice while it happened, yet somehow unreal. At times, she felt like a spectator, pushing herself through everyday motions. Some mornings she couldn’t get out of bed. When her day was over, she would go back to her bedroom, play Lana Del Ray, and think once more about ending her life.

It was years before Alleyha got a handle on what was bothering her, episodes of domestic abuse in her early teens. “A lot of things were pushed under the rug or normalized,” she explains.

She was left with a post-traumatic stress disorder so severe it affected her schoolwork and her ability to socialize. After doing some research, she went to Family Centers’ Outpatient Behavioral Health Clinic for help.

“When I got to college, I needed to home in on my academics, and not feel hectic mentally,” she says. Alleyha’s work with Family Centers’ clinician Jessica Schilero began last October. Since then, the two have worked extensively on identifying Alleyha’s traumatic experiences and putting them in a more manageable context. Together, they have developed a strategy to help Alleyha get through each day, by identifying likely stress points and better regulating her emotions.

“The more in tune I can be with my emotions and thoughts, then I have a lot of good days,” she says. “It’s a lot easier to enjoy myself now because I’m not stuck inside my head.”

The future presents opportunities for Alleyha—and challenges. She is transferring from Norwalk Community College, where she is an honors student, to the University of Connecticut at Storrs, to major in women’s studies.

Alleyha worries about her future as a college junior. “Stress is a trigger for me,” she notes. But she expresses confidence that her life has turned a corner, thanks to the work she has done with Family Centers.

“The impact of a change in mental health is really undervalued,” she notes. “Being able to be in tune with your thoughts and emotions is underrated. It saves lives.”



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