MIAMI – Throughout Miami, phrases like honorable, intelligent and extraordinary have been used to describe Modesto Abety, the CEO of The Children’s Trust.
“Mo,” as he’s known, is an old-fashioned social worker who uses old-fashioned values to shape the scope of how children in Miami are treated.
During an interview at the spacious and purposely “transparent” Trust office near downtown Miami, the soft-spoken grandfather of two described the initiative that has pumped revenue into and raised the standards of many social programs aimed at serving children. Many of the programs funded by the Trust are in inner-city communities.
The programs reflect the myriad needs of Miami-Dade’s diverse population. They range from a program that teaches parents how to stimulate their blind newborns to crawl (blind babies typically aren’t mobile because they bump into things) – to a stopgap program that provides services to babies with disabilities that are not severe enough to qualify for federal assistance, but who need help nonetheless.
“The help that we provide addresses the needs of those kids, who probably benefit more than kids who are more severely disabled because they’ll learn quicker. And when they get to school, they’ll be at a place where they don’t necessarily need special education, if we can catch them early,” Abety said.
Tax-weary voters approved the Trust referendum in September 2002 by a 2 to 1 margin. But now, in a decidedly more tax-sensitive year, voters must determine whether to make the organization permanent. A “sunset provision” brings the measure before voters again on Aug. 26.
Abety said a defeat would be “such a setback for this community and for children and families in general.”
He cited some of the program’s successes to illustrate why.
“I think we’ve seen in the last four or five years a reduction in the juvenile crime rate, a reduction in the number of calls to the abuse hotline,’’ he said. “We’ve seen greater access to health services as a result of our placement of school health teams into the schools.’’
Trust revenues from taxes for the 2007-08 fiscal year were $99.3 million, based on a 0.4223 mill property tax (the statute authorizes The Trust to levy up to 1/2 mill).
“A person owning a home assessed at the median-taxable-value, minus the Homestead exemption, pays $61 a year, or just over a dollar a week,” according to the trust’s website.
Black ministers’ support
Several Miami-Dade ministers recently announced their support, and encouraged voters to approve the measure on Aug 26.
In a statement released by the group of clergy, the Rev. Joaquin Willis, senior pastor of the Church of the Open Door in Liberty City, said, “It’s really a no brainer. Our families benefit through life-changing programs that are funded by The Children’s Trust.”
The clergy, representing more than 300 churches, unanimously declared Sunday, Aug. 24 as The Children’s Trust Super Sunday.
Just prior to the critical election, participating churches will “focus on The Children’s Trust through prayer and presentations by TCT representatives,” Willis said.
One of the programs funded by the Trust is The Resource Room in Miami Gardens. The Trust funds that program’s summer entrepreneurial camp, where middle school students are learning to develop business plans and market a product.
According to the program’s executive director, Ebony Jackson, the 17 students in the program are fully immersed in it.
“They are learning different business skills, interviewing different entrepreneurs,” Jackson said.
She said the Trust’s approach to working with providers differs greatly from other funding sources. One difference, she said, is the accessibility of the CEO. Another is the support the organization provides to its programs.
“I love the fact that they offer all kinds of workshops that will continue to allow providers…to build capacity,” she said.
Affinity for people
Abety’s accessibility is likely a result of his genuine affinity for people. David Lawrence, board chair for the Trust, has known Modesto for about 12 years and has nothing but praise for him.
“He’s an extraordinarily fine person,’’ said Lawrence, former publisher of The Miami Herald. “Absolutely full of integrity, works hard and cares deeply about children and people generally, and is as knowledgeable a person about children as any one we have in Miami.”
Lawrence is also the current president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, which focuses on giving Miami-Dade children a chance to develop intellectually, emotionally, socially and physically. The foundation was a key organizer in the efforts that led to the creation of the Trust.
Of Abety’s role as leader of the Trust, Lawrence added, “He runs a smart, honorable, full-of-integrity operation. His whole mind and soul are focused on what would be good for children in this community.”
No hint of scandal
In a town often synonymous with scandal, neither Abety nor the Trust has had even a hint of impropriety. Abety said the office space was intentionally set up without doors and with clear cubicles to reflect the Trust’s transparent business approach.
“It’s the idea that we wanted to send, because we do operate in the sunshine,’’ Abety said, referring to Florida’s “Sunshine Law,” which establishes a basic right of access to most meetings of boards, commissions and other governing bodies of state and local governmental agencies or authorities. “Everything is totally in the open, everything. All of our funding decisions are totally in the open.’’
That level of integrity is transferred to the programs the Trust funds, including a strong commitment to the success of Trust-funded programs. Programs that plop children in front of TV sets for hours on end need not apply.
“We measure everything that we fund. So if you’re getting funding from us for after-school programs, at minimum, we’re going to look at four or five things,” including, he said, “the literacy component of this program.”
The standards set by the Trust are admittedly high; however, Abety said, the organization prides itself on helping to improve the quality of services, as well as the functioning of the programs it funds.
“We provide a whole array of opportunities for administrators to improve their budgeting, management, marketing and communication skills. Our approach has been if our providers succeed, then we succeed.”
For more information about the Trust, please visit the Trust website at www.thechildrenstrust.org.
Photo: Modesto Abety