Writing New York: Posts from the Boroughs and Beyond — 2008-2011 Rotating Header Image

Urban Neighborhood Services

With a large church and a flashy Chase bank sitting close by, the unpretentious building on Mermaid Ave. that houses the headquarters of Urban Neighborhood Services (UNS) seems modest in comparison. Inside, the office is equally no-nonsense: comfortably worn-in chairs line one wall, and a large array of encouraging pamphlets and notices about everything from English classes and health resources to an anti-gang message from the District Attorney, are on display near a window.

Urban Neighborhood Services (UNS) is a local, non-profit organization that targets issues in Coney Island which affect education, family, health and other aspects of living in an inner-city area. Since UNS’ formation at the very end of 2004, it has been the definition of local and grassroots: it wasn’t until 2008 that the organization got its own office.

Founder Mathylde Frontus, a poised woman with a warm smile, works from a room not much larger than a cubicle and piled with papers. “Everyone has a different thing that they’re consumed by,” Frontus explained. For her, finding solutions to community problems is that thing.

Frontus first came up with the idea for an organization like UNS during her adolescence, growing up in Coney Island and witnessing issues that plagued the neighborhood– problems such as financial trouble, gang violence and urban decay.

UNS combats these issues by providing a wide range of services for the people of Coney Island. Their Financial Paths Project, for instance, teaches financial literacy through workshops and seminars. In their Community Health Information Access (CHIA) program, they distribute health information and pamphlets as well as condoms. UNS has also been known to help residents in the area look for jobs and housing by showing job listings and giving referrals to potential employers.

“The work that we do with our young people, I’m very proud of,” Frontus said, continuing, “We do a lot of SAT prep classes, which is a first [for an organization in the neighborhood].” UNS also offers academic assistance for students, and takes youths on trips to places like NYU and Harvard University. Their eight-week summer youth program teaches high school students leadership development and puts emphasis on community service.

UNS serves another special role in Coney Island: according to Frontus, they are the only organization that addresses the needs of the LGBT community. “Originally, we wanted to have a program—we called it Safe Zone—where we kind of had a support group for LGBT youth.” This plan turned out to be too risky, due to LGBT biases in the neighborhood, so UNS shifted gears: “We decided to offer training for organizations in the community on how they could serve LGBT youth,” Frontus said. This training includes helping organizations identify the needs of the LGBT community and teaching them to check personal prejudices.

On a more direct level, UNS helps LGBT youth find resources for help with their needs, with the aid of an extensive resource book on LGBT sources. If someone comes in, Frontus explained, the UNS is in a position to help them by telling them where they can go. The office also serves as a form of sanctuary for any LGBT youth facing danger.

Though UNS offers many different programs, Frontus feels like there is much more that can be done. “I would like to see our programs grow,” she said. “Right now, we’re kind of stunted by limited funding.” To pay for their multitude of programs, the UNS receives funding from various sponsors. Some of their city funding includes councilman Domenic Recchia, and before state funding was cut down due to financial deficit, they received funding from assemblymen and the State Senate. Corporations like the YMCA and businesses like banks and local pharmacies also provide funds for UNS.

“Many of our funding is program-specific,” Frontus explained. Their Going Green Program, for example– a year-long campaign of green education for businesses and families– was sponsored by Con Edison. Their Summer Youth Leadership Project receives funding from a number of sponsors each year: this past summer‘s sponsors included Luna Park, Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, and four banks.

UNS also does a great deal of self-funding. “We do fundraisers. Every June we have an anniversary mixer, every December we have a holiday fundraiser.” Their most recent fundraising effort is a talent show that will be held at restaurant Peggy O’Neils on Nov 10th.

Frontus and the other members of UNS aren’t about to let a thing like lack of funding curtail the expansive vision they have for the program. “Our goal is to continue to grow, to serve more residents, make more of a difference in the lives of individuals,” she said. According to Frontus, any progress made with certain issues in Coney Island can serve as a case study for how to combat these issues in similar neighborhoods. “We view Coney Island as a microcosm of urban communities around the country, ” she said. “We see it as an opportunity to reflect on urban communities [across the United States]… kind of as a laboratory where we can learn best practices.”

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