charlie_crist.jpgMIAMI _ In its nearly 40 years of existence in Liberty City, the Belafonte Tacolcy Center has engaged future lawyers, doctors and professionals in its myriad offerings for children – including a daycare center, an after-school program for youth suspended from school, a leadership development program and a family empowerment program.

Now, the center is poised to take on its largest and most ambitious project ever, one that could help break the cycle of poverty in Liberty City, and beyond.

 On Friday, June 6, Gov. Charlie Crist is scheduled to visit the neighborhood institution to sign The Magic City Children’s Zone into law.

The 10-year pilot program would transform the Tacolcy Center into the headquarters of a new initiative that would organize efforts between public and private social service agencies. The agencies would provide educational programs for inner-city youth and their parents, including classes on child rearing. One of the program’s goals would be to increase graduation rates among the city’s at-risk students.

 The “out of the box” endeavor has boundaries that include several diverse communities, including Little Haiti, the predominantly Hispanic areas Allapattah and Wynwood; and the largely African-American Liberty City community.

 The Magic City Children’s Zone is modeled after the hugely successful Harlem Children’s Zone in New York. That program is credited with providing a full network of services to an economically struggling neighborhood, including educational, social and medical services that continue from birth all the way through college.

 Belafonte Tacolcy Center CEO Alison Austin said the initiative may impact the “brain drain” in Miami, a term that describes the exodus of young adults who do not return after graduating from college.

 “I have a whole generation of kids that were born and raised in this community who have never seen a single project in this community that could give them hope that there is a reason to stay here,” Austin said.

 Many of them, she said, ask her, “What’s in Miami to come back to?”

 Sisterhood of leadership

Today, The Magic City Children’s Zone (tentatively named that way because the Harlem program has restricted the term “Children’s Zone’’ to that initiative) was born of what Austin called a synergy among community leaders who surveyed the state of affairs in Liberty City and proclaimed, “This is our town and our time, and if not now, when?”

 “We had experience, we had education, but most of all we had knowledge and passion about this community,” said Austin, who lives, works and attends church in Liberty City.

 Dissatisfied with the messages that children growing up in the area received, Austin said what turned out to be “largely a sisterhood” of leadership formed.

 H. Leigh Toney, executive director of Miami Dade College’s Entrepreneurial Center, began researching “programs that had similar dynamics that were working. The one that rose to the top was the Harlem Children’s Zone,” Austin said. 

 Toney said MDC’s involvement will be patterned after other high-performing colleges and universities across the country that reach out to the community as early as possible.

 “We used to have the mindset that said, ‘Let’s start recruiting children for college in ninth grade – but really talking to kids about college should begin in kindergarten,’” Toney said.

 Austin said the determination to look at Liberty City from a different perspective, coupled with a sermon preached by her then 17-year old daughter, Imani, added to the synergy that allowed women such as Karen Moore of the Urban Task Force; Marva Wiley, formerly of the Model City Trust; Austin and Toney to create a holistic initiative in Miami that is aimed at serving youth from birth to young adulthood.

 Bill did not pass at first

 The Children’s Zone initiative was defeated here on its first try last year, but found new life with strong support from then-state House Speaker Marco Rubio, a Republican from West Miami.

 On its second try, in the midst of massive budget cuts, the 2008 state Legislature approved the program, allocating $3.6 million for the program’s first three years of operation, or $1.2 million per year.

 Austin  said one of the initiative’s primary goals is to hire a development person who can help parlay the seed money into the $25 million the zone will ultimately need each year to fully serve the community.

 Rubio was among a delegation of people – including state Rep. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall and County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson – who visited the Harlem Children’s Zone last fall to get a firsthand account of what the community-based, community-led, program accomplished.

 The visit was “an amazing experience,” Austin said.

 Bendross-Mindingall is credited with introducing Rubio to her constituents in a series of meetings she called the ‘District 109 Plan.’

 “What came from [the meetings] was a presentation that our planning team created to present to Marco Rubio, [Eduardo Padron], the president of Miami Dade College, the chairman of our board [Arthur Barnes] and other key stakeholders in our community. That was our seed for what’s now being signed as a bill,” Austin said.

 Crist and Rubio were traveling and unavailable for comment. Bendross-Mindingall did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

 Pivotal sermon

 Austin said her place of worship, The Church of the Open Door, requires each of its high school seniors to deliver a sermon to the congregation.

 Her daughter and 15 of her daughter’s close friends graduated in the top 25 percent of their class at Miami Northwestern Senior High Community School, and all received college scholarships.

 Austin said Imani’s sermon inspired her to pursue the Children’s Zone. 

 The sermon topic? “I am something good coming out of Liberty City.”

 Imani, now 20, is a Howard University public relations major who is slated to graduate next May.

 She said she plans to work in another major metropolitan city for six or seven years to hone her skills as a public relations practitioner. Then, she said, she plans to return to Miami to help Liberty City's “mom and pop’’ businesses grow and prosper.

 “I tell my mom that all the time that there is nothing for me in Liberty City,’’ Imani said. “She gets kind of  upset about it because she wants us to be able to come back to our community and help build it up as she is doing. I have great respect for her for doing that because in the few years that she's been at Tacolcy, I've already seen a change in a lot of kids in Liberty City, having me…change my mind about wanting to go back there."