When Robert Peralta first brought his oldest son to the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center’s Head Start preschool program, he had no idea what to expect when his son kept calling for him.
At the time, Peralta was a few years into his position as KHCC’s buildings and grounds director after starting as a custodian back in 1998, so a trip into the classroom wasn’t far as much as it was frequent. Peralta recalls his son wasn’t fluent in English yet, and being away from his father was challenging for the first two weeks of the program.
“They had to call me every 20 minutes,” he said.
As the months went by, however, Peralta’s son was finally comfortable in the classroom.
“In the end, he got so used to it that when I used to go in there, he used to go, ‘Nah, you don’t need to come in here,’” he said.
Peralta’s story is one of many anecdotes employees and people who utilize KHCC’s services have about the community center as it celebrates its 45th anniversary this year.
The main facility at 3101 Kingsbridge Terrace was home to the New York Police Department’s 50th Precinct until 1972. When news got out the space would be vacated, KHCC co-founders Janet Athanasidy, Patricia Burns and Mary McLoughlin began a campaign to convince City Hall to hand it over to the community.
With the help of then-Assemblyman Oliver Koppell and other community leaders at the time, KHCC got the building in December 1974, and officially opened its doors in 1975.
Lisa Lindvall was first drawn to the community center when her two children visited there as part of a service learning project while attending Horace Mann School. Although it’s been more than a decade since those service learning projects took place, KHCC has never really left their hearts.
Lindvall is now chair of KHCC’s board of directors, and when her children come back to visit, they stop by to help out as well. But Lindvall’s attention remains on the community center’s garden, educating children about nutrition.
“Getting the kids out there and seeing the excitement on their faces when they pull up a carrot for the first time, or they’re finding worms,” she said, “it’s more about the kids and how we can help them navigate their way through life.”
Once while teaching kids about healthy foods, Lindvall encountered a girl who refused to eat any leafy greens.
“She said, ‘We don’t have any green stuff at home, I’m not touching that,’” Lindvall said. “And I said, ‘Just try it.’”
After taking a few bites of some of these foods, the girl liked what she ate.
“She ended up convincing her family they should eat more greens,” Lindvall said.
KHCC has not only been a source for education programs for the last 45 years, it’s been a place for survivors of domestic violence, child sexual abuse and campus sexual assault to receive free long-term treatment services through its Changing Futures program.
Lisette Abreu, assistant director of Changing Futures, has spent nearly four years at KHCC and has seen the ways this program has positively impacted lives, especially after working with children.
“Sometimes you’re in this field and you don’t even know what little impact you’re making on the kids,” she said. “But once you see the progress that they make from coming in … that’s really what I love about this place.”
Helping survivors is also something Margaret Della, KHCC’s executive director, is passionate about. In fact, just a few months ago, state Sen. Gustavo Rivera and New York City’s First Lady Chirlaine McCray stopped by to talk to a group of survivors.
Della remembers they discussed “how KHCC is a bridge between their trauma and where they are today,” and have learned to work through what they’ve experienced by becoming life coaches or facilitating group discussions about what they’ve been through.
“That to me was really special,” Della said. “Your immediate feeling is to look at someone who is a survivor and say, ‘Oh my gosh, how terrible.’
“But to see how survivors are not just talking about their trauma, they’re talking about something that is far more conducive, far more important to the rest of the community, to the immediate environment that they have around them than from what happened during that period in their life, or that day, or in that relationship.”
It isn’t easy to help run KHCC some days, but it’s the positive aspects that keep Della motivated.
“Sometimes it’s really difficult,” she said. “I didn’t grow up in Kingsbridge Heights, and to see the amount of love that is poured into this agency on a daily basis is really profound.”
While others, like Peralta, are happy to see KHCC evolving day by day.
“The center’s still standing and you see all of these people who used to come when they were kids and now they’re adults and they still bring their kids,” he said. “That says a lot.”
As KHCC looks to the next 45 years, the first item on its agenda is to celebrate. On May 7, the organization will host a spring luncheon at The Water Club at 500 E. 30th St., featuring a panel discussion that includes Tarana Burke, founder of the “Me Too” movement, and Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr.
But for now, the most important thing for KHCC leaders like Della is focusing on what self-care programs can do to benefit members of the community.
“I think that spirit of wellness is something that we really want to invest in not only for ourselves, but for our longevity,” she said. “Because if we can’t focus on the well-being of our teams and the well-being of our community, we’re in trouble.”