Special to South Florida Times
For Merline Barton, giving back to the community is not a hobby; it’s a way of life. The mother of two is founder and executive director of the Thelma Gibson Health Initiative based in Miami’s West Coconut Grove neighborhood.
Her service has drawn national attention and she has been chosen as one of 10 Community Champions in a Feeding Dreams program sponsored by the food corporation General Mills.
Through the Initiative, Barton operates three programs: At-Risk Minority Seniors, which seeks to improve older adults' quality of life by providing increased access to health care; Youth Prevention Intervention, catering to 5-to-18 year olds through individual and family counseling, education, mentoring, tutoring and cultural enrichment activities; and HIV/AIDS, Substance Abuse, Outreach, Education, Testing and Counseling, dealing with the homeless who face problems such as mental illness and/or substance abuse and HIV/AIDS.
The youngest child and only girl of a Chinese mother and Jamaican father, Barton said, she and her two brothers were taught the value of helping others at an early age.
“I had wonderful parents who were always very supportive. They instilled values of education, hard work and compassion into my brothers and me,” she said in an interview. “In our family, we were brought up knowing that we are our brother’s keeper and we had a responsibility to bring about social change.”
Her passion for helping the community grew while she attended Alpha Academy, a Catholic high school in her hometown Kingston, Jamaica.
“Going into impoverished areas and helping those who were less fortunate was a part of our school’s mission and I had a yearning and passion for helping others,” she recalled. “So whatever I could do like gardening or teaching literacy classes, I would always volunteer in community outreach.”
Upon graduation from high school, Barton moved to New York and continued her education at the Washington Business Institute and the American Institute of Banking. She accepted a job offer with Barnett Bank that caused her to relocate to Miami.
Once in Miami, Barton embarked on several career paths, but eventually returned to her calling as assistant executive director of the Coconut Grove Local Development Corporation.
In that role, she led the corporation in building low-cost housing and in providing job training and job-placement. Her efforts in economic development helped her realize a greater need had to be addressed.
“I saw the need to help the West Grove – which once was a thriving community – become vibrant once again,” she said. “I realized you could not change a community without actually helping to change the person and the best way to do that was to build healthy minds and bodies. I thought I could do a better job if I created a social service center in the middle of the community.”
And so in November 2000, Barton began the Thelma Gibson Initiative with lots of passion and few dollars. She left her assistant director job, lived off of her savings for eight months and called in favors from friends. Eventually, pounding the pavement paid off and the Initiative began to receive grant funding.
“It was hard work and frustrating, a constant fight to bring in the money but when you see mentally ill people walking up and down Grand Avenue not fully clothed, the need smacks you in the face,” she said. “I knew I had to succeed.”
Donna Clarit, 52, is one of Barton’s success stories. After a 30-year addiction to crack cocaine, she met Barton in 2000 and experienced what she calls a “spiritual awakening.”
“Merline is like a big sister to me. I’d probably be smoking [crack] now if it weren’t for her. She didn’t look at me as a crack-head or as using drugs. She looked at me as a human being and saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. The drugs took over the best of me and Merline saw something deep down inside that the crack cocaine had buried,” Clarit said.
Now Clarit works with Barton as a Community Outreach Counselor and has a certificate in Social Work from Barry University. She is happy that General Mills is recognizing Barton for her work.
“Merline deserves this. She’s always reaching out and trying to help people along the way but, most importantly, she loves people and gives them a fair chance at living again. She’s an inspiration to us all,” Clarit said.
Barton said the award shines some light on the community she serves.
“I’m truly grateful and humbled to be chosen to represent Miami and West Coconut Grove because in the work that we do most times you don’t get recognized,” she said. “You don’t look for recognition because this work is from the heart but it was very emotional, not just for me, but for the community that is often overlooked by the affluent of the East Grove.”
The Feeding Dreams program is in its third year and this is General Mills’ first foray into the Magic City, making Barton the first Miamian to be named a Community Champion. The 10 regional winners each will get $500 and Barton and the others are in the running to become the Grand Champion and bring home the prize of $10,000 to the charity of her choice. That award will go to the Community Champion who gets the most online votes by Oct. 31.
To vote for Barton, log on to www.feedingdreams.com/miami. Votes may be cast once a day until Oct. 31. For more information about the Thelma Gibson Health Initiative, log on to www.thelmagibsonhealthinitiative.org.
Photo: Merline Barton