charlie_crist_tacolcy_4.jpgMIAMI _ On the very spot where four of its vans were vandalized by eight-, nine- and ten-year-old boys a few years ago, the Belafonte Tacolcy Center welcomed Gov. Charlie Crist on Friday to endorse a bold new initiative that will help little black boys and girls.

Crist signed a bill on Friday, June 6 creating The Magic City Children’s Zone, a 10-year pilot program that will transform the Tacolcy Center in Liberty City into the headquarters of a new initiative that will organize efforts between public and private social service agencies.

 The Children’s Zone is modeled after a New York City program credited with providing a full network of services to an economically struggling neighborhood, including educational, social and medical services that continue from birth all the way through college.

 The Liberty City initiative was defeated in the state Legislature on its first try last year, but found new life with strong support from former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, a Republican from West Miami.

On its second try, in the midst of massive budget cuts, the 2008 state Legislature approved the program, allocating $3.6 million for the program’s first three years of operation, or $1.2 million per year.

 Tacolcy CEO Alison Austin introduced Crist, welcoming him and a slew of other elected officials, community leaders, residents and media to the site of the vandalism that happened “on a Sunday morning midday,”  Austin said, describing both its irony and impact.

 “We knew something was very wrong. We started thinking, ‘How do we change this?’’’ Austin said. “How do we change the minds of young boys to believe that they are protectors of their community, protectors of their mothers, protectors of their sisters, and not destroyers?”

 Austin said The Zulu Warriors, a mentor program at Tacolcy, was created as a direct result of the vandalism.

 It is that kind of solution-focused social activism that also led to the creation of the Magic City Children’s Zone, (tentatively named that way because the program after which it is modeled in Harlem has restricted the term “Children’s Zone’’ to that initiative).

 State Rep. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall and state Sen. Larcenia Bullard told the South Florida Times that their joint efforts were instrumental in the initiative becoming law.

Bendross-Mindingall said, “We’ve been fighting for this for three years.”

Bullard added, “We worked together very closely …one thing I’ve learned is that the House and the Senate must work together in order for this to happen.”

Surrounded by several young members of the Zulu Warriors, Crist echoed the importance of bipartisanship. “Most of these people here…are Democrats. [Rep.] Juan [Zapata], the speaker and I are Republicans. But what we believe is most important is that we’re all Floridians first.”

 Locally, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson has championed the ‘Zone.”

 Said Edmonson, “I took the resolution to Miami-Dade County almost two years ago and it passed unanimously, so we were really waiting for the state. It’s all coming to fruition.”

 In perhaps the most tangible evidence of bipartisan support, the Magic City Children’s Zone made it into 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future, a book written by Rubio. The book was compiled after the popular 37-year-old Republican traveled around the state to gather ideas from citizens.

 “Three years ago when we started the 100 idea process, we came to this very building. Our idea wasn’t to start this or anything else. We just wanted to talk about solutions to problems,” Rubio said.

 After Rubio heard about the Harlem Children’s Zone from Austin and H. Leigh Toney, executive director of the Miami Dade College Entrepreneur Center – and after he listened to their ideas about replicating it in Liberty City – Rubio turned his visit into something far more.

 He traveled with a group to see the program at work in New York, and said that program “really changed the course of history for an entire generation.”

 He added, “They drew a line in the sand and said, ‘From this point forward, we will not lose another generation to what’s wrong in our society.’ ”

 Pointing out parallels between the Harlem and Liberty City communities, Rubio added, “Within walking distance of this building, there are young men today who are lost, but we remember, you remember, when…they still had dreams and hopes for themselves. Along the way something went wrong. What this is about is eliminating what went wrong.”

 He said little boys like nine-year old Ronald Larry Jr., a member of the Zulu Warriors, “can be anything they want to be in this country, in fact, this country cannot be what it is meant to be unless these young men and women can fulfill their potential.”

Photo by Khary Bruyning: In a ceremonious show of teamwork, Gov. Charlie Crist hands his pen to state Rep. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall after signing The Magic City Children's Zone into law as other elected officials, children and supporters look on.