alison-austin_web.jpgMIAMI – Last summer, the Belafonte Tacolcy Center became the first organization in Miami to open a Freedom School, an acclaimed Children’s Defense Fund enrichment program.

On Monday, Nov. 23, thanks to partnerships with Burger King’s “Have it Your Way” foundation and Habitat for Humanity of Greater Miami, the Freedom School unveiled a plush, fully stocked reading room.
The school also unveiled a brand-new, 15-passenger van that will transport the program’s young attendees to and from the 43-year-old Liberty City institution that offers a smorgasbord of services to children and families.

“Tacolcy is not simply a community center; we are the center of the community and our philosophy is to meet the community where they are,” said Alison Austin, Tacolcy’s CEO.

Anne Manning, executive director of Habitat for Humanity’s Miami chapter, said the partnership between the Christian homebuilder and Tacolcy grew from several different projects on which they all work together.

One of those projects involves Habitat’s presence at the center to “extend home ownership applications to some of the families of the kids that come here,” Manning explained.

Manning said the idea for the reading room came from Habitat’s volunteer designer Henri Almanzar, who designed the room in honor of meteorologist Trina Robinson of NBC 6/Telemundo. The room was initially created for Habitat’s annual appearance at a home show at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Manning said once the show was over, a volunteer suggested giving the room to Tacolcy.

In addition to donating the new set of wheels, Burger King’s HIYW Foundation donated reading material and 40 Thanksgiving baskets for Tacolcy families.

Among the furnishings in the tastefully furnished room are large overstuffed armchairs, chic reading lamps and an elegant leather recliner donated by Habitat’s Re-store, which sells donated items to the public at heavily discounted prices to raise money that helps build homes in partnership with low-income families.

Enormous fantasy-inspired murals adorn the upper walls, and the shelves are stocked with the more than 700 books donated by Burger King’s HIYW staff.

“As a member of the Liberty City community since 1956, which is only two years after Burger King was founded, we are so thrilled to be here to celebrate this dedication here today,” Burger King vice president Yvette Diaz said before presenting the vehicle’s keys to Austin.

“It’s amazing because we were able to secure a van for our program and transportation was a major issue for our program,’’ said Deen Tyler, the Freedom School’s program director. “The reading center is basically a perpetuation of everything the Freedom School stands for because it represents a family, [it’s] homely and at the same time a literary environment. I wish I had one in my house.”

Freedom School students Rickiya Torrence, 8, and Maximo Guzman, 7, whose favorite books are Good Night Daddy and Rule the School, respectively, said they are happy to have the reading room and the new van. 

Highlights of the program for Rickiya include the daily motivational singing, a trip to Barry University and “all of the field trips.”

Research conducted on the Kansas City Freedom School revealed that children who attend the program score significantly higher on standardized reading achievement tests than children who attend other summer enrichment programs; and that African-American middle school boys made the greatest gains of all.

Seven additional Freedom School sites will open throughout Miami-Dade by the summer of 2010.

Photo by Khary Bruyning. Alison Austin, CEO of the Belafonte Tacolcy Center.