audrey-edmonson_web-1.jpgResidents got a taste of what could be their children’s future at the Miami Children’s Initiative’s “Rekindling the Dream” free family dinner at the Joseph Caleb Center on Saturday.

The 200 participants were treated to a full dinner service, complete with waiters, a raffle for two 36-inch high-definition television sets and live performances by performers including the liturgical dance group “Angel Expressions.”

“If we talked about change and then held the standard event, where they serve hot dogs and play booty music, then it wouldn’t be promoting growth,” said Renee Ward, executive director of the Miami Children’s Initiative. “We wanted to reset the bar in Liberty City with this event and expose children in Liberty City to experiences they would otherwise not get.”

Miami Children’s Initiative, established by the state three years ago and initially funded by a $3.6 million grant to Miami-Dade County, aims to improve the lives of Liberty City children and young adults up to age 21 by offering a broad range of educational, health, recreation and other services.

The Initiative is based on the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City. It spent the past two years creating an organization, establishing a structure, forming a board of directors, hiring an executive director and setting up an office in the Caleb Center, 5400 NW 22nd Ave.

“The next step in the process is fundraising and reaching out to other organizations that deal with the issues we wish to tackle,” said Ty Jones, an Initiative volunteer.

One task the Initiative plans to take on is the creation of a database of community services offered by other organizations. Another is to reach children in Miami’s poorest and underserved community as soon as they’re born.

“If we wait until a child is already 6 or 7 years old, then that child already has preconceptions about the world,” said Ward. “It we want to make lasting change, they children have to start learning before entering school.”

On that count, the Initiative plans to hold “baby camps” where new mothers can learn to use a special curriculum to encourage their children’s development.

Jones is a liaison between MCI, drug dealers and gang members. He recently made contact with nine of them to introduce them to programs that can help them.

“Many of these people have police records that make it difficult for them to find jobs,” said Jones. “They want to do things differently but they aren’t armed with the right information.”

Jones recommends that they find ex-offender programs that help.

“A lot of them are parents and when I ask, ‘What about your children?,’ they tell me they don’t want them to be exposed to crime,” said Jones. “It is important for us to reach out to those with this Initiative that would be the ones who block it.”

Jones grew up in Liberty City but left to play college basketball in Texas. He returned 15 years later when his mother took ill and joined the initiative to improve his neighborhood.

Liberty City leaders, including Miami-Dade County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson and the Rev. Nathaniel Wilcox went to Harlem two years ago to study the Harlem Children’s Zone program.

“MCI mimics components of Harlem Children’s Zone’s health, welfare and education service,” said Wilcox, executive director of PULSE, People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality.

The key takeaway: establishing a solid community base and spending time creating a solid organizational structure before starting programs.

With that process complete, the program has opened for business on the fourth floor of the Caleb Center.

“We designed this office to not only be a place of work but also to facilitate families,” said Ward. “Children and parents who come through our floor will be encouraged to stop and talk or use the computers we will have set up for them.”

Edmonson added, “We want our kids to be proud to say that they live in Liberty City. We can make this change but it is going to take all of our support to do it.”
Alec Scott may be contacted at