Maria Riley ran into her mother’s arms when one of her friends left the third-floor classroom of Visiting Nurse Service of New York’s Early Steps Family Center in Rockaway Beach Friday. Her tears, a testament to how much the other girls there meant to her.
“We’re going to see her on Monday, baby,” her mother, Nicole, told her about her friend.
But that’s too long a time for Maria, 4. She wants to be with her friends all day.
“She loves being here,” Riley said. “You see, all she wants to do is come here and be with her friends.”
Friday was not a normal day at the newly opened building at 2-16 Beach 87 St. VNSNY cut the ribbon on the new family center, located a block from its former site that was devastated in Hurricane Sandy.
Serving 185 students from the Rockaways and Broad Channel, the center has been key to parents and children on the peninsula before, during and after the devastation Sandy wrought.
The center’s executive director, Carmen Ayala, said the focus on children began in the mid-1990s, when the organization was helping teen parents in the Rockaways.
“I started here as a teacher and a grandmother of the one of the kids,” Ayala said, noting her granddaughter is 18 years old now.
Eventually the center received funding to serve the children of those parents and later open it up to other children.
They opened a center near the Rockway Commons shopping plaza that had classrooms and service areas for families.
Then came Sandy. Although the center was displaced along with most of its families, VNSNY did not forget its clients.
“They never forgot us,” said Amber Beckles, a parent and president of the center’s policy council. “We always had help from VNSNY. We lost so much in Sandy, but we got so much from this organization.”
Even with the facility destroyed, the policy council still met in a nearby parking lot.
“We were out there in the cold, bundled up, having our meetings,” Beckles added.
Some families were displaced. Riley had to relocate herself and her daughter to the Bronx for several months.
“After Sandy, [Maria] became quieter and more attached to me,” Riley said. “But now, I leave her here and she just says ‘Bye’ and goes off to play with her friends.”
As the recovery from the storm continued, VNSNY poured more funding into rebuilding the center and making it better than before. The organization took over the then-vacant building on Beach 87th Street, renovated it and finally reopened it in May, just over 18 months after the storm.
Today, the family center does home-based services for children under 2, with weekly sessions at the center with parents.
Early Steps has been approved for one full-day prekindergarten class as part of Mayor de Blasio’s universal pre-K program.
There are also programs for fathers and for parents looking to get GEDs.
The center is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. to help serve parents who work and have to make the long commute to and from Manhattan, though Ayala said most students go home much earlier than 6 p.m.
Riley said parents set up play dates for their children outside of the center and have made friends with each other.
She added that post-Sandy, more than ever, the center, which her daughter calls “school,” is needed in the community.
“People don’t realize the effect Sandy had on the children here. It really stopped their growth and learning in its tracks,” Riley said. “We’re so glad to have this center back.”