gems_2_web.jpgMIAMI GARDENS — Drive down either of the city’s two main thoroughfares (Northwest 27th Avenue or U.S. 441), and witness Miami Gardens’ penchant for development in the number of new retail businesses and nationally prominent coffeehouses and restaurants.

Participants in the five-year-old city’s new program for young ladies recently saw the results of a different, perhaps more important type of development.

In keeping with the “jewel” theme of the Girls Empowerment Movement Society (G.E.M.S.) program, the city on Saturday, Sept. 20 held an event at a little-known treasure called the Marian Center, a sprawling educational campus operated by the Catholic Health Services of the Archdiocese of Miami.

Eighteen young ladies between the ages of 13 and 23 were introduced to the community after having completed a seven-week program that paired each of them with a professional woman and offered group instruction in the fine art of being a well-groomed, well-spoken and well-mannered young lady.

City officials created G.E.M.S. after working closely with the Miss America organization in preparation for the city’s own beauty queen competition – the Miss Miami Gardens Scholarship Pageant. As they implemented that now two-year old program, it became apparent that some of the young Miami Gardens’ contestants might benefit from hands-on assistance.

“There were just a few challenges they needed to work through,” said Ula Zucker, events planner for the city of Miami Gardens.

After Zucker brainstormed with her assistant, Tamilla Mullins, the two created the G.E.M.S. program as a vehicle for helping young ladies who live in the city to develop their self-esteem. At the same time, they learned organizational and time management skills, grooming, public speaking and networking skills.

The girls’ lesson on dining and table manners came with private instruction from an etiquette coach during a full course lunch held at
The Mahogany Grille, compliments of the restaurant, City Councilman Oliver Gilbert and City Attorney Sonia Dickens.

Miss Miami Gardens 2008, Shantell Chester, 19, was one of the participants. She raved about the program’s impact on her new embrace of promptness.

“I learned a lot about time management because I’m always late. I didn’t appreciate time. Time is money and money is time,” she said.

Local radio personality Tamara Gant mentored 13-year old Monique McMillan. Gant, who also served as the evening’s emcee, said she was initially reluctant to become involved due to the time commitment. But when she received a second invitation from Mullings to participate, she immediately said yes.

“People have given to me and helped me. I feel it’s my duty to help and give back,” said the co-host of “Those Two Girls in the Morning” radio show on 97.3 The Coast.

Gant said although the program’s focus was on developing the young women, she also learned from the experience.

“Some of the seminars that they had on Saturdays, I was looking forward to a lot of them. One was on budgeting, even as a [purposely inaudible age] woman, I still have problems with that,” she said with a chuckle.

McMillan said of the program, “It was really fun…and a big surprise each time I’d come each week. The G.E.M.S. taught me about finances, about being on time, and…proper dressing,” adding that her most valued lesson from the program is, “Don’t listen to what anybody says. You’re pretty no matter what.”

Miami Gardens Mayor Shirley Gibson noted that events of this magnitude are possible because of the city’s independence. 

“We want to provide those kinds of experiences…that all of our residents can participate in,” Gibson said, stressing the importance of helping the city’s youth to know their self-worth.

Photo by Khary Bruyning. Monique McMillan, left, and mentor Tamara Gant, right.