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April 22, 2009 > Its party time at the Family Resource Center

Its party time at the Family Resource Center

By Ceri Hitchcock-Hodgson

The year is 1994 and industrial business parks relegated to the outskirts of Fremont have been taken over by Internet-inspired startup companies ready to make their mark (and money) on the Silicon Valley phenomenon. Meanwhile, at the city's civic epicenter, one woman's dream of advancements on a social level has inspired others to begin just as feverishly on their own innovation. Instead of reaching for the dot.com golden ring of wealth, these dedicated idealists focused on ensuring a good quality of life for the entire community. Although their time and effort was not to be rewarded in the form of stock options or an employee parking space, their efforts created one of the most invaluable institutions in the City of Fremont - the Family Resource Center (FRC).

Located at 39155 Liberty Street in Fremont and utilizing every inch of an expansive complex, FRC is home to 27 State, County, City, and nonprofit organizations offering an array of services ranging from employment (Tri-Cities One-Stop Career Center) and emotional support (FamilyPaths) to individual (Safe Alternatives to Violent Environments or SAVE) and family empowerment (Fremont Healthy Start). The all-encompassing center also offers classes and workshops focused on a wide variety of topics including language skills, domestic violence, financial education, job hunting and parenting. In addition, FRC has founded organizations such as the Tri-City Elder Coalition (TCEC), an affiliation of over 60 organizations, including businesses, cultural and faith groups, hospitals, long-term care facilities and senior service providers working in collaboration to offer programs, services, and opportunities for local seniors.

Going one step further to provide the community with practical resources, FRC hosts the county's largest Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program which has helped over 1,000 families to receive over $500,000 in earned-income tax credits.

Groundbreaking programs and services such as these offered under one roof or a "one-stop-shop" has gained recognition of FRC as a "best practice" model of service delivery according to the center's administrator, Judy Schwartz.

And it all began with a vision by Suzanne Shenfil, Director of Human Services for the City of Fremont who is credited by colleagues with founding the Family Resource Center.

Shenfil's journey began with graduation from UCLA with a degree in Sociology. The native Californian decided to become a Vista Volunteer, moving to the Midwest. Experience in advocacy for Public Housing and Welfare Rights led her to the judicial side of social work. Prompted by her newfound passion, Suzanne decided to return to school, earning a Master's Degree in Social Welfare Administration from the University of California, Berkeley (Note: In 2004, Shenfil was named Alumni of the Year).

While the common view of Social Workers is one professional working one-on-one with their client, it was the bigger picture that attracted Shenfil. Her interest in working with the community as a whole was fueled by internships, particularly time spent working for the League of California Cities. She was drawn to the idea of "changing institutions, the political side, how [social] systems were organized, I guess you could say I deal with the macro-system aspect of the profession."

What would become her life's mission started with learning of an opening with the City of Fremont for a new, groundbreaking position as Human Services Coordinator. The position, as well as the concept of a Human Srvices Department was something new for cities and Shenfil accepted the challenge with gusto.

When she first arrived in Fremont, the Human Services Department had yet to exist; Shenfil found herself working out of the City Manager's office creating an entire department - Human Services - from the ground up. She accepted the challenge and initiated innovative ideas her colleagues call "out-of-the-box."

"I'm really proud of it," said Shenfil.

However, when asked how she feels about being called the "Founder" of the Family Services Center, Shenfil reverts to her characteristic modesty. "People want to label me the 'Mother of the FRC' but I had a co-coordinator, Carol Lamont, Director of Housing [for the City of Fremont]."

The tale begins in 1994 as the two women agreed that there should be a way to improve the delivery of social services. Dubbed "dream sessions," they brainstormed to create a vision for the future. Others were invited to participate in these dream sessions which included plenty of snacks. "Food [is a sure-fire way] to get people to come to a meeting," said Shenfil with a laugh.

Utilizing her "out-of-the-box" thinking, she approached co-dreamers with the thought that if money were no object, what would be the ideal model for an all-inclusive social service center. Shenfil's goal for these meetings was to "dream as big as we can for our community; giving a voice to all the people."

After five years of planning, funding and designing, their vision was actualized in the form of a $12 million, 55,000 square foot facility they christened the Family Resource Center.

"While other people said we were finally finished, I knew we had just begun," Shenfil recalled about the FRC's early days. Offices designated for various organizations were not quite ready and agencies had to be relocated to a nearby shopping center in the interim, a chaotic task that Shenfil likens to musical chairs. Yet once the dust settled and people were put into place, the creators of the FRC realized that their dream-turned-reality filled a much-needed void in the community.

It has been 10 years since the FRC facility broke ground, both literally and figuratively. What began as an idea shared by two City of Fremont employees has evolved into the epicenter of a network of community support working together to ensure that all client needs are met and questions answered.

"You can come in [to the FRC] for housing but have a childcare question and [the organizations] will work together to make sure your needs are met," Shenfil said of the collective concern that defies the usual bureaucracy associated with government programs.

Easy access to the FRC's services, ranging from financial aid and education to family support and free childcare is essential. "People are coming here in a crisis and [in] desperation, needing immediate solutions," observed Eka Kato, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Family Case Manager at the FRC. Kato adds that many clients enter the center experiencing anxiety and fear because "they have not been able to find solutions to their multiple problems." However, once these individuals experience all that the FRC has to offer, their trepidation is replaced by a sense of security and empowerment.

And that was all that the dreamers ever truly wanted. Of course the accolades and admiration are a nice bonus but it is a pleasure to give local residents the tools to provide for themselves and in turn help others.

On Saturday, May 2, 2009 the Family Resource Center will celebrate a decade of serving the community with "Changing the World... One Family at a Time." The Tenth Anniversary Gala Fundraiser will serve as an opportunity to honor "Chief Dreamer" Suzanne Shenfil in recognition of "her vision, creativity and commitment to service, without which the FRC would not have been born."

The gala will be held in a beautiful tent-turned-party room located on the FRC premises and feature a gourmet dinner accompanied by wine and a lively evening of music dancing, a silent auction and more. Proceeds from the event will be used to preserve safety net services for families including the centers affordable drop-in child care service, Discovery Cove, and its Family Economic Success programs.

To purchase gala tickets, become a sponsor or donate a silent auction item, please contact FRC Administrator, Judy Schwartz at (510) 574-2000 or jschwartz@ci.fremont.ca.us.


"Changing the World... One Family at a Time"
Saturday, May 2, 2009
6 p.m. to 10:30 pm
Fremont Family Resource Center Premises
39155 Liberty St., Fremont
(510) 574-2000

$100 per person

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