By Trudy Whitman
Paula Heitman began her job as the new executive director of Families First, the venerable parenting center at 250 Baltic Street, on July 5. By September Heitman felt she had gotten her feet wet at the new job — enrollment was healthy and new programming was about to be scheduled. Then, on Wednesday, September 28, she opened the door to Families First and literally got wet feet; a broken pipe in the kitchen had flooded the rooms, destroying books, toys, art supplies, and office equipment. For five days, professionals worked on the place sucking out the water and dehumidifying the center, saving the floors and the rugs.
It was trial by water. But the experience was a window onto the soul of Families First, Heitman said. Members quickly donated toys and supplies and Amazon gift cards to help get the center up and running again. “I very quickly saw what a great place this is,” Heitman remarked.
Paula Heitman, the mother of a six-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son, is a former neighborhood middle school teacher. Before coming to Families First, she directed an after-school program at the Warren Street Center for Children and Families in Boerum Hill, a publicly funded childcare agency.
Families First is known for its bright indoor play space and a home-away-from- home atmosphere where both parents and baby sitters are welcome, Heitman noted. It also features a well-regarded Practically Pre-School program for children aged 18-24 months. This runs on a flexible trimester schedule. Children may attend once, twice, or three times per week, and if toddlers are ready for separation, their caregivers may leave the room.
Other offerings include newborn parent discussion groups, CPR classes, financial planning, infant massage, cooking, and art. Holiday parties and Spring Carnival, which features rides and a petting zoo, are neighborhood favorites among the stroller set.
Families First was the brainchild of two therapists who worked for South Beach Psychiatric Center, the state-run agency that occupies most of the building. In 1979 the women traveled to Chicago to study a model of an urban parenting center that they replicated here. The goal of the organization, which was first called The Brooklyn Center for Family Life, was to welcome parents and caregivers, reducing the isolation and alleviating some of the stress of child rearing in the city.
Now Families First is a model for other groups, actively assisting parents in other parts of the city interested in establishing similar centers in their communities.
At first, South Beach covered all Families’ First’s costs — dues were just $5 per family. But over time, the center was required to become self-sufficient. Although rent was minimal, staffing, programming, insurance, and cleaning costs required the organization to raise fees, ask for donations, and acquire grants.
Currently, Families First has an active membership of 300. There is a basic $75 fee, which affords families access to classes at a reduced rate and discounts at local shops and restaurants. Play space membership is $275 a year. The center is open Mondays – Thursdays from 9 – 4 and Fridays from 9 – 1. Paula Heitman is working on expanding grant-funded programming to extend the use of Families First to families of limited means.
For additional information, contact the center at 718 237-1862 or visit www.familiesfirstbrooklyn.org.
* * *