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Brooklyn Community Services: Serving Brooklynites in Need for Over 150 Years

By Fern Gillespie
For over 150 years, Brooklyn Community Services (BCS) has been a landmark social service agency in New York City. During the 1800s, it became one of the first social service agencies in the country. It was started after the Civil War by a group of leading Brooklyn businessmen and philanthropists to help Union widows and children living in poverty in Brooklyn. Antique annual reports show names from the Gilded Age like Pratt, Abraham, Straus, and Rothchild on the charity’s board of directors. One of New York City’s oldest continual social service organizations, BCS has been a part of the changing face of Brooklyn and aided generations of Brooklynites from all ethnic backgrounds living in poverty with jobs, education, shelter, food, and health services.
In 2018, BCS made Brooklyn nonprofit history and appointed Janelle Farris as President and Executive Director, She is the first Black person to head the legendary nonprofit. Farris, who had held the #2 position at BCS for several years, holds an MPA from Harvard University and a BA from Spelman College. She joins a list of Black women breaking barriers and heading major Brooklyn nonprofits like Medgar Evers College, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn Community Foundation, and Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration.

At BCS, the mission for its 20,000 clients is education and youth development, family and community building, workforce development, healthcare, housing and homeless situation, people living with disabilities, and mental health. “Today, we continue to strengthen communities by fostering the educational success of children, the leadership development of youth, the employment and housing stability of adults, the advancement of individuals living with disabilities, and the empowerment of seniors and families,” Farris told Our Time Press. “Brooklyn is a microcosm of urban centers around the world. We are one of the most diverse places. We have perhaps the highest concentration of African Americans and Black people from around the world. Systematic poverty exists in our community but supporting one another can make a major difference.”
The city of New York recently gave BCS a contract to begin a suicide prevention program for young people that is currently in development. “We are recognizing the dramatic impact of Covid and the shutdown when they closed schools and activities. Primarily the impact that this had on young people,” said Farris. “They are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder that demonstrates itself in a variety of ways. It’s behaviors that disable folks to learn. We need more social workers in our school programs to help diagnose as well as assist young people to gain access to mental healthcare.” Affinity Group has presented BCS with a $400,000 grant to increase the number of social workers.

BCS has over 20 programs throughout Brooklyn focusing on children, adults, and families. The BCS Cornerstone programs with New York City Housing Authority provide engaging, high-quality, year-round programs for adults and young people at Carey Gardens in Coney Island; Farragut in Vinegar Hill; O’Dwyer Gardens in Coney Island, and Seth Low in Brownsville. Brooklyn High School for Leadership & Community Service is a transfer high school for over-age, under-credited at-risk youth ages 16 to 21. The BCS Gary Klinsky Children’s Centers are after-school and summer programs. Other programs include BCS Youth Stand United; NeON Works for youth in the criminal justice system; BCS Fatherhood Initiative for non-custodial fathers and their children; BCS Education Center in Sunset Park and Coney Island Community Service Center. Transitional shelters in East New York and Sunset Park for homeless young women and facilities for homeless adults and individuals with severe mental illness. GHW Mobile Outreach Van for high risk of HIV, Hepatitis-C, drug and alcohol illness. The BCS programs for adults with intellectual disabilities have employment, volunteer work, and housing. Mental health psychiatric rehabilitation with art therapy for adults and The Clubhouse program. The BCS Shower Bus program is for the homeless community and migrant communities.
The Laurie A. Cumbo Children’s Enrichment Center, named for the former City Council Member who is now NYC Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, is an Early Learning Pre-K Program that promotes literacy and creative arts in Fort Greene. “Laurie Cumbo was extremely supportive in getting our childcare center relocated,” said Farris. “She is someone who cares deeply about Brooklynites. She’s such a good role model for young people as they begin their lives and learn the importance of community and personal growth.”

“Social services are required in order for a city or state to function. We are the sector that serves people of color and people in the service are people of color,” said Farris. “We owe it to ourselves and our future to support each other’s personal and family growth. If we’re under-educated, if we’re underemployed or under-housed, we can’t do that. It’s a critical time and I want to see as many people as possible who have been affected by systematic poverty overcome and be able to have the life they choose to lead.”