MIAMI — Gepsie Metellus was a newly-minted college graduate when she moved to Miami in 1984. At the time, Miami’s Haitian population continued to swell as hundreds of Haitian refugees, fleeing poverty and the repression of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s regime, arrived in South Florida week after week, seeking asylum in Little Haiti, Miami Gardens, Homestead, Florida City and Opa-locka.
Metellus knew about the plight of the Haitian people all too well. Born in Port-au-Prince, she and her family had left Haiti when she was 12 and moved to New York. She recalled growing up listening to her relatives’ discontent and concerns about the island under Duvalier’s rule, which sparked her interest in social activism.
From an early age, activism “was in my blood,” Metellus told the South Florida Times just moments before she was honored by Camillus House on March 30 for her work as the executive director of the Haitian neighborhood center Sant La. The neighborhood resource center at 5000 Biscayne Blvd. in Miami serves the Haitian and Haitian-American population of South Florida.
Metellus was one of six black women honored by Camillus House for their roles in shaping Miami’s black cultural history in the areas of philanthropy, community outreach, and business.
The organization also honored Miami Gardens Mayor Shirley Gibson for her service in Miami-Dade County government, Thelma Gibson for her groundbreaking contributions to healthcare, Christine “Momma” Mims for her commitment to the well-being of children and families, Beverly Parker for her financial contributions to the less fortunate, and Carole Ann Taylor for her professional success in business.
“What is most impressive about the contributions of these six women is that through their achievements and example they have transmitted the essential values and standards inherent in African-American culture,” said Paul R. Ahr, Camillus House president and CEO.
“That is, the commonly held meanings that are universal to the African-American community relevant to the fields of government and politics, health care and social service family life, philanthropy, arts and culture and business, both to the young people of their own community, as well as to the overall community.”
Friday’s event marked the sixth year Camillus House has recognized the role of Miami’s black female leaders in shaping culture. But it was the first time the organization held an event at its new building, at 1603 N.W. Seventh Ave. in Miami. The new center is less than 90 days away from its official groundbreaking, according to Ahr.
“When I saw this facility, I was out of my mind with inspiration,” honoree Gibson, 85, told the audience of about 200 community activists and social workers. The Coconut Grove native was recognized for devoting more than 50 years of her life tackling community initiatives in education, health, professional leadership, volunteerism and service throughout Miami-Dade County.
At the podium, Gibson recalled working with the Catholic order of brothers who run Camillus House to curb the homeless problem on Miami’s overcrowded streets during the 1980s. The vision for the organization’s new facility, she said, should now involve a higher level of training for the people Camillus House helps.
“We don’t just want them doing construction work,” Gibson said. “We want them to be trained and educated to do higher level jobs in this community.”
In 2000, Gibson published her autobiography, Forbearance: Thelma Vernell Anderson Gibson: The Life Story of a Coconut Grove Native. In an interview she said that activism has helped her teach people the importance of living healthy lives.
Through community activism, “you’re able to help people understand the importance of wanting a good life,” she said. “It’s important to dream and make those dreams come true.”
Metellus said the best way to achieve that is by promoting “self-sufficiency and integration” among the people she helps through the Sant La center.
“Service is never wasted,” Metellus told the audience, “when you serve with the right heart and the right spirit.”
*CAMILLUS HOUSE HONOREES: Gepsie Metellus, left, and Thelma Gibson.