zeta1_web.jpgMIAMI —  It was 20 years ago that Rosetta Vickers decided she would repay her mentors for the impact they had on her life by establishing a mentoring center herself.

The result was the Zeta Community Center, which since 1993 has offered free tutoring, mentoring and classes in self-esteem and self-defense to students from kindergarten to 12th grade at its location, on the corner of Northwest 54th Street and Northwest 17th Avenue.

“I lost my mother at an early age, but thankfully I had some people to motivate me along the way and I’ll never forget it as long as I live,” said Vickers, 79. “And I always said I was going to do something about it.”

Now, due to her declining health, Vickers says it’s time to pass the torch in hope of keeping Zeta alive.

Despite declining enrollment and reduced funding, the families who send their children to the center deeply hope it continues to exist.

“I don’t know what I’d do if this center didn’t exist. It has helped me through these hard financial times,” said Maria Figueroa, who lives in Miami Shores, and whose three children attend Zeta.

Families do not have to live in Liberty City to send their children to Zeta.

“All you need to do is show you’re in need and be able to get your child to the center,” Vickers said. “We do not turn anyone away.”

Vickers bases the center’s work on positive reinforcement; she knows students need motivation, so she offers incentives for learning more.

“I give the students a $2 bill when they complete a chapter in their book or they can take an item from the basket which range from school supplies to hygiene products,” said Vickers.

Zeta teachers know, too, that they make a difference.

“We help fill the learning gap from parent to teacher,” said Doris Herron, a retired elementary teacher who teaches at Zeta. “We hear good things from the parents and the teachers. They say the students are getting higher test scores and are improving in class.”

Zeta also sponsors a scholarship program, which has helped almost 200 students go to college, and a student does not have to attend the center to qualify. The students who currently attend the center are mostly in elementary school and Vickers looks forward to the day when she can award another senior.

“If you’re in need and a good student, we want to help you get to your dreams,” said the founder.
For the past 20 years, Zeta has received $70,000 from Miami-Dade’s Office of Community and Economic Development and contributions from donors. The center used to receive $100,000 a year from the Department of Education and up to $90,000 a year from The Children’s Trust, but they no longer receive funding due to incomplete grant applications and lack of support from outside donors according to Vickers.

“The thing with the grants is that they changed the rules of the game, said Ulysses Howard Sr., chairman of  Zeta’a board. “It’s really hard to find someone that’s versed on what they require because if not, they will deny the grant and that’s basically what happened.”

Howard and Vickers are discussing ways to get the word out about Zeta in hopes that this will bring in more revenue.

“If something is happening you have to be proactive about it; no one is going to be proactive for you,” said the chairman. “There are organizations in the community that would be interested in helping, but they can’t help if they don’t know.”

But, if donations continue to decline, the center will be forced to close their doors.

“I see the center closing at the end of this school term if things don’t get better,” said Howard.

Vickers’ health problems have also affected the funding the center receives. She is the one who rallies donors and requests funding from organizations, but she no longer has the energy.

“The contributions used to be huge, but now they are little, said Vickers. “I can no longer work as much as I used to.”

Vickers is stepping down as president in May because she wants to spend more time with her family.  And she finds it difficult to perform her duties at Zeta because she has vision problems and trouble walking.

“I will still be working at the center. I just can’t do as much; but I’ll be sitting in this hallway until I die,” said the founder. “I will serve as a volunteer to tutor students part-time, twice a week.”

The board members have not found a replacement for Vickers, but the search will continue until a suitable candidate is hired to take over the president’s position.

In 2012, Vickers paid herself a salary of $11,325, but gave the money back to Zeta by making donations and purchasing food and items needed for the center.

“The children need the money more than I do. I’ve made very good investments in my life, so this is the reason why I’m able to give it all back,” Vickers said.

A month ago, Vickers worried that the center would have to close because they had only half of the students required to attend the center. But due to constant campaigning by the staff to nearby schools and communities, the enrollment went from 20 to 55.  And the founder wants to double that amount.

“When we first opened, we had over 80 students,” said Vickers. “But, a few years ago, that total started to go down because we had to compete with other schools that offered a similar program; but I have faith that we can get to those numbers again.”