NYC Community School District 1 to offer University Settlement mental health services to all District 1 families

Groundbreaking pilot expansion of University Settlement’s Families Thriving program is fully funded by Trinity Church Wall Street

Families Thriving, University Settlement’s program offering community based, multi-tiered mental health and wellness supports, including healing-centered social emotional support, mental health services, and collaboration with educators, will expand its operations into 11 additional schools in New York City’s Community School District 1 on the Lower East Side in a pilot funded by Trinity Church Wall Street.

This plan is notably comprehensive, making mental health supports available to 2,675 additional students across all District 1 school sites.

The partner organizations anticipate that at least 75 additional District Families will receive clinical engagement with Families Thriving services during the three-month pilot expansion, while many hundreds more will participate in and receive “light touch” social emotional supports and opportunities.

Using the evidence based Triple P (Positive Parenting Program) model, therapeutic support groups, and University Settlement’s newly developed Connection Circle group processing model, Families Thriving works with caregivers to address issues impacting District 1 students daily. These issues include the impact of intergenerational racism, poverty, and other traumas, and reduce risks and impacts of involvement in the juvenile justice and foster care systems. Young people participating in Families Thriving will have access to services including individual and family therapy, skill building, and crisis intervention and prevention. Services are flexible, responsive to individuals’ situations, and can be provided 1:1 in a classroom, in a private space, at school or after school, at home, virtually, or in the community. Families Thriving has also provided thought partnership, professional development, and ongoing collaboration to District 1 school staff.

Families Thriving partners with individuals and families while aiming to create community-wide impacts and has been a reliable source of support and responsive community care for District 1 schools since 2017, including throughout the COVID-19 crisis, thanks to seed funding from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.  While partnering closely with 8 schools in the district, the program has served more than 500 individuals over the last five years. More than 90% of graduating families report experiencing positive change after having been involved.

As community mental health needs have risen across New York City over the last few years, institutions including the NYC Office of School Health, the New York State Coalition for Children’s Behavioral Health, and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene have increasingly turned to Families Thriving as a thought partner to strategize effective ways to respond.

“The mental health crisis for children and families is not new, nor is it specific to New York City, and it’s our hope that the way this pilot is structured might serve as a model increasing access to mental healthcare in other communities nationwide,” said Mary Adams, Associate Executive Director for Mental Health + Wellness, University Settlement. “We’re really thrilled about the potential of this partnership, understanding that collaboration between a school district, a community-based organization, and a philanthropy is not common – our visions are matched while what we bring to the table is complementary. Collectively, we believe that quickly expanding families’ access to a range of supports woven through the community can make a real difference in the wellbeing of the community. This may not sound groundbreaking, but it is rarely done!”


The expansion of Families Thriving comes as one result of Trinity Church Wall Street’s comprehensive needs assessment for its Lower Manhattan community.

“Just over a year ago, Trinity started a new program focused on promoting community well-being in our Lower Manhattan neighborhood,”said Lorelei Atalie Vargas, Chief Community Impact Officer, Trinity Church Wall Street.  “We held listening sessions with people throughout the community, including parents, teachers, students, and staff in District 1 schools, as well as with healthcare workers, small business owners, and other key stakeholders. From these conversations, we identified three key components of social and economic mobility for families – access to high quality K-12 education, childcare, and mental healthcare.”

“We heard loud and clear that people in the community need additional mental health support, not just during school hours but also at home,” continued Vargas. “People have experienced a lot of trauma and stress in the pandemic, and of course the pandemic also exacerbated existing stresses. Many parents and families are still struggling with those burdens. The systems that our schools and mental health solutions are embedded within do not support innovative and rapid response to needs as they arise. We at TCWS see ourselves as being able to respond more quickly, placing a priority on making programs that work more accessible to meet the needs we understand exist within the community.”

“Families Thriving has been in our schools for the last five years, and it has been an important resource for our families,” said Carry Chan, Superintendent of Community School District 1. “Getting full-time social workers in schools remains a work in progress, but Families Thriving helps fill the gap – our parents and parent coordinators consistently tell us how important this program is.”

“The systems nonprofits operate in, that schools operate in, that families must participate in, are structured in ways that effectively limit accessibility to mental healthcare when it is needed most,” continued Vargas. “Imagine being the parent of a child who needs mental health care, and you’re told there’s a three month wait for the next appointment. That’s unacceptable, and yet, that’s the reality for many New Yorkers. We’re excited to support this expansion of Families Thriving – because the program centers families to help them achieve their goals, and it has a track record of success. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel – if a program works, we want to support it. We hope that the result of this investment will be increased well-being for many of the families that District 1 serves.”


“In addition to providing individual and family services, our program promotes wellness and healing-centered practices at the community level, where our youth and families spend their time,” said Barbara DiGangi, founding Director of Families Thriving. “It is powerful when conversations about mental wellness and family wellness are intentionally woven into the everyday life of a child or family in a public health model approach, aiming to address the impact of systemic inequities. Thanks to the core values of leaders and staff in District 1, and in partnership with our phenomenal staff, who truly see families as the experts of their own situations, we’ve seen that we can make progress toward making this possible. There are many people who could really benefit from mental health services or social emotional support but who might not, for many reasons, be ready or able to take the steps necessary to access it. Families Thriving is making mental healthcare more accessible, normalized, and less intimidating through relationship-building and by helping community partners embed social emotional ‘light touches’ or access points into their processes. We believe connection is the place where intervention can happen.”

“What sets Families Thriving apart is that it is truly community-driven,” continued Chan. “Barbara and her team know the families, they are known in our schools, they’ve built trust there. Families Thriving is visible and accessible, providing multiple touchpoints to an ongoing continuum of support.”

“In mental healthcare, building relationships in the ecosystem where you are caring for the community is vital,” continued Vargas. “We need to build a mental health system that recognizes this priority and directs money and resources toward programs that help create relationships. When a mental health provider is granted a satellite clinic license to operate in a school, or other place where access to their clients would be maximized, there is no funding for building relationships. Families Thriving is a relational model, and it’s the depths of the relationships that the clinicians build with the families they’re supporting, which has led to such successful outcomes for our families. If we are thinking about how to expand this successful and innovative model beyond the walls of Community Schools District 1, this is a policy issue we need to see addressed.”

Scroll to Top
Scroll to Top