Sister Act

Denise and Francine LeFrak join forces to bring critical wellness programming to Barnard

By Nicole Anderson ’12JRN

A painted portrait of the LeFrak sisters

“I believe so strongly that women must speak up for other women in their philanthropy,” says Francine A. LeFrak, and this is the ethos — one that was instilled by her mother Ethel, Class of ’41 — that has inspired Francine and her sister Denise to come together to collaborate and build upon their shared passion for championing women. “We found out, at this stage in our lives, that we have the ability and the right formula to work together successfully,” explains Denise. 

Francine is the force behind the new Francine A. LeFrak Foundation Center for Well-Being at Barnard. The Center, which was announced last October, will establish a centralized hub for the College’s wellness programs, offering critical services to support students’ physical, mental, and financial well-being. Starting in January 2022, the first floor of the former LeFrak Gymnasium in Barnard Hall — which Francine and Denise’s parents, Ethel and Samuel LeFrak, generously funded in 1998 — will undergo a renovation to create a brand-new home for the Center and its myriad wellness initiatives, including the Feel Well, Do Well @ Barnard campaign, in addition to a fitness center, a space for financial wellness programming, and a dance studio. 

“Our mother graduated with a degree in economics from this great College, so when the idea of a center for well-being, incorporating three pillars of wellness — financial, physical, and mental — presented itself, I wanted to move forward with it because it felt closely aligned with my Foundation and our passions,” says Francine. “The idea of enlisting my sister in this venture was crucial to me: It models the importance of our relationship and our desire not only to honor our mother’s legacy but to honor each other.” 

For Denise, the Center provided all the right ingredients for an ideal partnership. “The Center for Well-Being was Francine’s idea, but I immediately felt that it was a project I wanted to be involved with in a meaningful way,” she says. 

Collaboration is nothing new for Denise and Francine, who’ve joined forces numerous times, combining their expertise and experience, with impressive results.

Denise realized there was an essential component to the Center’s health and wellness mission that she wished to bring to fruition: a resource for students who are grappling with substance abuse, whether it is their own relationship to alcohol and/or drug use or the addiction issues of a family member, friend, or partner. In March, the College announced the creation of the Denise LeFrak Foundation Alcohol and Substance Awareness Program (ASAP). Funded by a generous gift from the Denise LeFrak Foundation, the program will name a room in the Center, which will serve as a dedicated and centralized space for ASAP’s individual and group counseling, in addition to events and campus-wide outreach.

“Everybody has someone in their lives or knows someone with some kind of addiction or addictive problem,” says Denise. “In general, people stigmatize addiction, and it is proven that this approach doesn’t help anyone get better. Having a program available that increases awareness and provides access to positive ways in which to address problems will create a community of support.” 

While the Center will present a range of programming, Francine is particularly excited for students to have access to resources for enhancing financial fluency. “What I want for the Francine A. LeFrak Foundation Center for Well-Being is to see women learn about and embrace their financial future, be comfortable discussing investments, and to feel empowered and confident so that they are relying on themselves for their financial stability,” she says. “As a result, they will understand the impact that being financially sound has on their physical and mental wellness.”

Collaboration is, of course, nothing new for Denise and Francine, who’ve joined forces numerous times, combining their expertise and experience, with impressive results. One such project is the Samuel J. and Ethel LeFrak Center at Lakeside in Prospect Park, which has become a favorite skating and recreation facility for Brooklyn families. “We are able to create and achieve things working together that would not be as significant if we did them on our own,” says Denise.

Francine notes that there’s a special synergy between the two of them, bolstered by mutual respect and encouragement for one another’s interests and abilities. “We developed a partnership and communication style that works, and we support each other. I love working with Denise and learn so much from her.” Denise couldn’t agree more. “After our mother’s passing, we spent a lot of time together and found out that each of us had different things that we excelled in,” she adds. “We became this powerhouse team and complemented each other in different ways.”

And this project is proof of the sister’s exemplary teamwork. As Francine says, “Sisters coming together in their efforts to support women and women’s wellness in an innovative way is the secret sauce for the Center’s success.” This venture is not only a culmination of their collective efforts but also a celebration of their mother’s many contributions to Barnard over the years, which were driven by her enduring devotion to and support of women’s education and her alma mater. 

“We have seen the powerful things taking place at Barnard over the years. We recognize Sian [Beilock, president of Barnard] as the inspirational thought leader that she is and believe in her vision to help impact Barnard women,” says Francine. “I want this Center to be the model for other colleges and universities on what well-being means. I want women to have the tools to feel self-confident."

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