dorothy-bendross-mindingall_web.jpgA delegation of 12 people seeking to improve the lives of children in Liberty City recently visited Harlem to learn how an innovative program for disadvantaged children works there.

The group hopes to bring some of those lessons back to Miami.
The Practitioners Institute, a program designed under the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) to share information with other communities across the world, opened its doors to organizers of the Miami Children’s Initiative (MCI) and other Liberty City community leaders from Oct. 19 through 24.

The Institute educated the delegation about the Harlem Children’s Zone model, and how it can be implemented in Liberty City.

HCZ, which first started as an organization called Rheedlen, began its work in 1970 as a truancy prevention program. Over the last 40 years, it has blossomed into a multi-dimensional program that has served more than 20,000 families.

The Miami Children’s Initiative, which Gov. Charlie Crist launched in 2008 as the Magic City Children’s Zone, is a planning effort to lay the foundation for a coordinated continuum of services that will empower Liberty City’s children and families to succeed. The 2008 state Legislature, with leadership from state Sen. Larcenia Bullard and former state Rep. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall,  allocated $3.6 million to cover planning costs for three years. The funding is designated to cover the costs of strategic planning, establishment of the Miami Children’s Initiative as a nonprofit corporation, and the development of a 10-year business plan.

The Miami delegation toured several HCZ network programs that were formed to improve high-school graduation rates and increase the number of children who attend college.

They include the Baby College program, Harlem Gems, Universal Pre-Kindergarten, Peacemakers HCZ elementary school, Promise Academy, Peacemakers Middle School, HCZ community center, TRUCE Fitness/Nutrition center and the HCZ TRUCE Media Arts program.

“We also met with HCZ staff from fiscal management, fundraising, evaluation, accountability and program management,” said Winifred Heggins, vice president and director of program administration for the Ounce of Prevention Fund of Florida, the fiscal agent for the Miami Children’s Initiative. “The Chancellor of the HCZ Charter schools also met with us.”

Miami delegation members who participated were Miami-Dade School Board Member Wilbert “Tee” Holloway; People United to Lead the Struggle for Equity (P.U.L.S.E.) Vice President Nathaniel Wilcox; Morris Copeland and Irene Taylor-Wooten of Miami-Dade County government; as well as Suzette Frazier of the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Joining them were residents Regina Davis; Cheryl Parker; the Rev. Charles Dinkins; Thamara LaBrousse of Strategic Partners; and Fabian Thurston of the Jessie Trice Community Health Center.

Taylor-Wooten, who serves as Miami-Dade County’s special assistant for social services and was largely responsible for coordinating the trip, said the selection of attendees was based on getting a broad spectrum of people who represented the various community workgroups formed earlier this year, including residents and community leaders.

Taylor-Wooten also said that participating in the Harlem workshop was an essential step in forming and implementing the Community Strategic plan that will ultimately be used to create the 10-year business plan for the Miami program.

Taylor-Wooten told the South Florida Times that the trip was a success because the group was able to get an overview of HCZ while asking questions in reference to success stories, pitfalls and obstacles that the Miami group may face as they begin implementing their plans.

“The overall experience was awesome,” Taylor-Wooten said.  “As I said to the group, you can read all the articles written about HCZ, but it does not give you the same impact as being there, seeing the program in action and hearing the staff talk about what they do with such compassion, commitment and determination to ‘do whatever it takes’ to help the children.’’

She continued: “They functioned as one entity all working together for one common cause.”

Holloway agreed.

“I was mostly impressed by the ability to design and implement an initiative without the distractions that typically restrict or limit community-based organizations,” he said.  “Those restrictions include dependency on government dollars and so-called ‘Entitlement Dollars’ from ‘community chests groups’ which add additional costs in monitoring and compliance reporting.”

Holloway also said that Harlem’s model of educating children from birth to adulthood should also be implemented in Miami, as well as placing an emphasis on parental involvement.

“The HCZ programs created opportunity and challenges for parents to remain in the process and in the community,” he said. “Replicating the Harlem Children's Zone model within our Miami-Dade community challenges us on two levels: To believe in ourselves to the point that we can provide the financial support, and to challenge our parents to stay actively involved in their child’s education. This formula has provided proof for guaranteeing the educational success of our children.”

Additional information and project updates are available online at

Photo: former state Rep. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall