MILAGROS “AMY” LATORRES-RIOS has lived a life that defines what it means to receive from your community when in need and give back to others when able. As a 12-year-old she was invited by Center for Family Life (CFL) founder Sister Geraldine Tobia to join the Sunset Park community center, and she never left.
At 16 she worked as a junior counselor, and then continued on to hold a series of leadership positions. Today, age 39, she is director of the after-school and summer school programs. For her dedication, LaTorres-Rios was selected as the Brooklyn honoree for the 11th Annual PASEsetter Awards yesterday at Chelsea Piers, which honored one innovative and committed individual from each borough. PASE (Partnership for After School Education) is an organization that supports after-school programs, particularly those in under-served communities.
At age 12, LaTorres-Rios lived across the street from the CFL after-school program at P.S. 1 and spent a lot of time hanging out on her stoop, watching handball. One day, Sister Tobia crossed the street to invite her to come meet some friends, which was the beginning of LaTorres-Rios’ almost three-decade relationship with CFL.
“I joined the center at a time when I needed a network,” she said. “I came into a lot of different opportunities and had a lot of leadership development. Part of what made me stick around were the adult mentors who stuck with me all that time.”
CFL provides a comprehensive range of neighborhood-based social services for children and their families in largely underserved Sunset Park. More than 13,000 residents are served by CFL, according to the center. LaTorres-Rios explains that the after-school program helps parents pursue the jobs and opportunities they need to support their families because they are confident their kids are with caring role models and mentors.
Beyond just providing a nurturing, safe space, the program gives children a daily snack, homework assistance and weekly instruction in the visual arts, performing arts, literacy and sports. Weekly “club” discussion groups provide age-appropriate team building, conflict resolution, and social learning activities. Older children engage in community service projects.
“We’re providing a safety net, with opportunities and challenges,” she said.
LaTorres-Rios receives help with her 370 kindergarten through eighth-grade after-school participants from 80 high school volunteers, who are generally there either because they were once in the program or to fulfill community service requirements to graduate. She also has a paid staff of 37 that is supported through a network of fund-raisers, government grants and corporate support.
The afternoon before the PASEsetter Award, LaTorres-Rios described her nomination for the honor. Each year, she said, PASE sends nomination orders to CFL, and in years past the associate director has chosen not to nominate anyone — she doesn’t want to single out one person for the group work.
This year, however, she suggested the program directors discuss it at their weekly meeting. A colleague and former mentor of LaTorres-Rios asked if he could nominate someone in the room, and proceeded to nominate LaTorres-Rios, describing her trajectory and what he saw as her “lifetime commitment” to her work. Then each colleague in the circle shared an anecdote or story about working with or watching LaTorres-Rios with the kids.
“That day was more amazing than what tomorrow will be, I bet. They were speaking about my work in a way that made me proud. And three of my mentors were in the room. I said, ‘Whether I am selected or not, I feel like a winner already.’”
LaTorres-Rios was one of 500 nominees citywide. Through rigorous vetting, the group was narrowed to 20 people, then five. Hundreds of after-school supporters — including leaders from the corporate, academic, political, and philanthropic sectors — gathered yesterday to help PASE celebrate the hard work of these individuals at Pier 60. More information about PASE is available at www.pasesetter.com. The parent agency and sponsor of Center for Family Life in Sunset Park is SCO Family of Services. For more information or to donate visit www.cflsp.org.