MIAMI — Victor Gaines was not supposed to be here. After serving four years in prison for selling drugs, the Liberty City native was not expected to turn his life around. But he has.

As a 19-year old single mother of a two year-old son, Karimah Sheffield saw her early pregnancy as a stumble but not a fall, and
decided that being a mother would motivate her, not derail her dreams.
In addition to graduating at the top of her class at Miami-Dade Public School’s Continuing Opportunities for Purposeful Education (COPE) in 2008,  Karimah, continued her education at the Greater Miami Service Corp., from which she and classmate Gaines, 24, graduated on Friday, June 4.

Celebrating its 20th year, the Greater Miami Service Corp. (GMSC) graduated 51 students, the ceremony taking place in the chambers of the Miami-Dade County Commission.

Representing the diversity of the organization, students John Allen, Labassee Lucien and Holloman Gutierrez welcomed the
audience in English, Creole and Spanish, respectively.

The program’s first executive director, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Jordan, attended the June 4 ceremony to congratulate the graduates. Miami City Commissioner Richard P. Dunn was also on hand to offer prayer and support.

Jordan explained that GMSC began in 1989 after winning a $25,000 demonstration grant.

“We were in competition with 200 other organizations across the country,” she said.

After winning the grant and securing additional funding, GMSC solidified its philosophy.

“One of the ways to help young people who were at risk in the community, [who had] either dropped out of school and going nowhere, or graduated from high school, but didn’t know what to do. Or had had some contact with the criminal justice system, but needed a second chance,” Jordan shared. “That’s why the corps was created.”

Rebecca “Butterfly” Vaughns, a local spoken word artist, honored the graduates with encouraging poetry, one line asking, “Can anything good come out of the hood?"

The audience cheered her reply: “And my answer is yes!”

Students arrive at the GMSC with varied backgrounds and motivation. Some are recent immigrants looking to establish themselves in their new home; others have checkered pasts that made a traditional education less likely; and still others are looking for a bridge to stable employment and a life that they can feel good about.

The program offers a holistic approach to transformation for its students, who attend classes and voluntarily become a part of positive initiatives with tangible results — like helping to build houses Habitat for Humanity or assisting the county‘s public works department with keeping the community clean. The students also participate in individual and group counseling and are paid a small stipend during their GMSC enrollment.

One of the key premises of the program is that people who give to their community, value their community — and themselves. 

Louis Kelpler, a 1996 graduate of the GMSC and a Miami-Dade employee, said he graduated from GMSC one day, and began working with the county the next.

“Follow your dreams and don’t give up. Make sure you have positive people in your life,” Kelpler advised the graduates.

Kelpler is one of many GMSC success stories. Kionee McGhee, a local attorney and author, is another. The program has had more than 7,000 students to pass through its doors, many of whom have gone on to obtain advanced degrees.

Gaines, who earned his Graduation Equivalency Degree (GED) and a construction credential from the National Center for Construction and Education Research while enrolled in GMSC, is looking to add his name to the GMSC success story roster.

The former Lincoln Fields’ resident said that, according to his past track record, he was supposed to be either dead or in jail.
Instead, he is enrolled at Miami Dade College, studying Business Administration.

For more information about the Greater Miami Service Corp., please visit or call 305-638-4672.