Home > About > History

Oakes Children’s Center History

Today, Oakes Children’s Center is located at 1550 Treat Ave. in the Bernal Heights/Mission District of San Francisco and, in addition to acting as a hub for our administration, partnership and out-patient services in San Francisco schools, and after-school program and intern programs, serves as an educational and day treatment facility for 20-30 children ages ranging five to thirteen. These youth attend classes and receive treatment for a range of behavioral and neurological disorders on a five days a week, eleven months a year schedule. Their academic, social and behavioral learning is facilitated by a dedicated staff of teachers, psychologists, therapists, counselors and class room aides whose mission is to guide the students to their highest possible level of functioning. On staff is a child psychiatrist as well as a cadre of graduate psychology students.

To help students get calmly and safely to school, as well as to enjoy outings in the Bay area, Oakes provides transportation vans with trained staff on board. To ensure all students are able to participate fully each class day, breakfast, lunch, and healthy snacks are also provided. Oakes has an after-school program on site for children when the school day concludes mid-afternoon: Oakes also hosts a special socialization program for children who are able to attend regular public school classes but who need help developing social skills.  In addition to the Treat Ave. location, Oakes’ Partnership program clinical staff treat youth with special needs in a number of San Francisco Unified School District schools through our satellite program.

All these services have evolved from a humble beginning in September, 1963. At that time, the San Francisco Children’s Center opened within the Playmates Nursery School in the Parnassus Heights neighborhood. It was a preschool for children with autism spectrum diagnosis, run adjacent to a preschool for typically developing kids, two and a half to five years of age. Five children, ages four through eight years, were enrolled in the special therapeutic program. Writings of that time noted that children with special needs such as autism were generally not provided with services until age eight. There was a consensus amongst early childhood specialists of a need for early intervention, leading to the banding together of the parents of the five initial San Francisco preschoolers whose parents faced and rejected institutional settings for their diagnosed youngsters. The specialized program became known as The Community Effort for Disturbed Children, with its first Annual Meeting held in October of 1963.

Strong public relations and the determination of five Bay Area women stimulated public interest and raised funds for the fledgling program that would become Oakes. Those women became known as the Firehouse Five. They were Mrs. Joseph Costello, Jr. ; Mrs. Joseph Flahaven; Mrs. John Ward Maillard III; Mrs. Robert Gotcher; and Mrs. E.D. Puyat. Radio publicity used the voice of  prominent actress Vanessa Redgrave, a friend of one of the staff physicians and early sponsors the playwrite, Edward Albee. Among the community supporters providing grants  were Avery-Fuller Children’s Center; Crown Zellerbach Foundation; Fleishacker Foundation; Marie Stauffer Sigall Foundation and Rosenberg Foundation.

The funds raised and the increasing awareness of the need for day treatment for children with mental health issues and support for their families led to increasing professionalization of the program. In 1970, the program relocated from community centers and church basements to a landmark firehouse on Tenth Avenue in the Sunset District of San Francisco. Initially nine children were served in the picturesque building with teaching staff from the San Francisco Unified School District and mental health services underwritten through a contract with the city’s Department of Public Health.

In 1988, the program expanded its clinical staff by starting a training program for graduate students in psychology and social work. This training program currently is one of the few local sites where trainees can gain expertise in treating children with autism and emotional disturbance and their families.

Three years ago, recognizing the limitations of the firehouse as home to a school for over twenty active youngsters, and cognizant of the fact that most of the students come from the Bayview-Hunters Point area, a long and challenging ride for emotionally fragile kids to Tenth Avenue, the Board of Directors completed their search for an alternate more suitable location. The firehouse was sold and space leased from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese at 1550 Treat Ave. near Precita Park. The new location is a former school with spacious bright classrooms, a garden, and outdoor play areas and space for all school programs, lunches, family and after school groups, off-street parking for the vans and proximity to the population served. This makes transportation easier on the children and participation in school events and meetings significantly more convenient for the families.

The satellite partnership programs and after-school programs as well as the more spacious school facility will allow Oakes Children’s Center to grow in future years  to meet the needs of the community it serves.

With an increasing appreciation of the need for early intervention and an increasing number of cases diagnosed annually, it is hoped that Oakes will be able to serve those children and their families coping with developmental disorders of both cognitive and emotional bases.

Lois Goodwill

Former Member, Board of Directors

Oakes Children’s Center

November 2011