As the realization that the coronavirus would spread to all corners of Miami-Dade County dawned on residents, an overriding fear spread faster than COVID-19 among those who work with children and families. For them, the uncertainty was two-fold: Their own careers and jobs were in jeopardy, but so was the wellbeing of so many that depended on their services.
If ever there was a time to retreat and cower in the face of an invisible and deadly enemy, this was surely it. But that didn’t happen. Many of those service providers displayed unusual courage and bravery in facing the coronavirus pandemic in their own lives, as well as helping others who were less fortunate.
Here are some of their stories from the four corners of our county:
“It was a frightening time for us as a service provider and one that provides jobs in our community, where people are already struggling,” said Jannie Russell director of Teen Up-Ward Bound. The Opa-locka mentorship program whose mission it is to help build strong families and responsible teens for the past two decades initially found itself cutoff from those it serves.
Even as Russell dealt with a family member who became sick and had to be quarantined, she watched as the community around her came to a standstill with jobs and paychecks put on halt at every turn.
But Teen Up-Ward Bound received a lifeline from a familiar source. The program has been a The Children’s Trust provider for more than a decade, and almost as soon as they were forced to close their program in March, they received a call from The Trust. “To have The Trust carry our employees has been a tremendous weight off our shoulders. Instead of worrying about whether or not (our employees) were going to get their next paycheck, it helped us continue to go out in the community and provide services,” Russell said.
The program shifted its focus to taking masks and gloves to children and families in pockets of Opa-locka virtually cutoff from the rest of society, especially in terms of access to needed goods. “We went into those neighborhoods and apartment complexes to take learning packets and computers and to help children maneuver their way through virtual school classes. For those children whose parents and caregivers still had to work during the pandemic, Teen Up-Ward Bound provided even more critical services in the form snack bags for lunch for those children who could not get to food banks or school sites offering free lunches.
Russel and Teen Up-Ward Bound were fortunate to maintain their funding during what would become an economic crisis, as well as a health care emergency. In turn, the program adjusted to meet the needs of the community. And while their story is a bright spot among the dark days of the pandemic, they were not alone.
To the West
The Fit Kids program in Westchester knew early on during the pandemic that their mission to help kids from 2-14 years old become academically engaged, physically fit, socially adept, and culturally enriched would be suspended. “We knew things could get complicated. But at every turn The Children’s Trust has made sure that we (were) not only not putting ourselves at risk, but more importantly our babies, families and our business,” said Fit Kids Cofounder Rhonda Smith.
“When this hit, The Trust immediately reached out with not only kind words and support verbally, but they were really quick to let us know they would support us financially. They put their money where their mouth is,” Smith said. “They told us, ‘We believe in you and want to make sure you are in business to provide for our kids.'”
Fit Kids may have been shuttered, but they immediately got moving. “We wanted to reach as many people as possible and remain dedicated to healthy lifestyles. We brought in staff and created a new website, modeled after The Trust’s, StayHome.Miami,” she explained. Before long, Fit Kids transitioned into a virtual program that read books to kids Monday through Friday, and hosted online fitness and dance classes.
The Trust’s support went beyond the financial, Smith said, as the webinars on government loan programs and the follow up by individual Trust staff kept her and the Fit Kids team motivated. “In terms of the CARES Act, The Trust immediately had a webinar that methodically walked us through it. If it weren’t for enthusiasm and support they showed us, we may not have had the info and encouragement to apply. But we did and we received it. We wouldn’t be in the position we are in without them. They have a real bird’s eye view, and they always have your back. I am so dedicated to them, I say my prayers every night and they are always in my prayers, forever grateful to them.”
Because Fit Kids remained connected to the children and families it serves throughout the pandemic, the transition to reopening has gone smoother than anticipated. “We are opening up Monday, June 8. Even though we want to sign up everyone like every year, we’re confined to only have certain amount of kids, but we will still try and reach as many as possible.”
The Mexican American Council (MAC) in Homestead is an arts and education based nonprofit that highlights the academic achievement of farmworker children. Their mission has been the same for 36 years. But this year, that mission changed.
When the 100 kids and farmworker community that the council supports were faced with the coronavirus, MAC CEO Eddie Garza knew that priorities would have to change. “We had to make sure that the students had access and a device to continue their education,” Garza said. “The Trust gave us support, not just financially, but with PPE and encouragement.
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“By keeping us solid, we were able to get out over 1,000 masks to the farmworker community. The Trust kept asking us if we did the digital audit, if the kids were connected and did they have hotspots. They have been a calming source for me and staff. The Trust has always been there through this saying, ‘don’t worry, do what you can with what you can.’”
Because MAC continues to be a touchstone for the immigrant communities in the south, they were able to adapt plans for the 36th Annual Farmworker Student Recognition Ceremony. This year’s event has evolved, but the end result will be even more impressive than in year’s past with a 24 scholarships for students given out at the Friday, June 5 event.
All the Way East
Among the programs that were honored during last year’s Champions for Children Awards, Guitars Over Guns learned to evolve quickly when its space was physically shut down early during the coronavirus pandemic. Mentoring kids through music initially became making sure those kids had access to basic needs, food and water, explained Regional Director Walker Mosely.
“After that initial push, within two weeks we launched virtual learning programs. All of our sites operated two days a week. Through zoom links our mentors were able to continue mentoring and providing connection and a bit of light and structure in students’ lives after they got completely turned upside down,” Mosely said.
In total, 82 percent of the program’s previous students participated in virtual sessions which will run to June 16, when Guitars Over Guns will holds its virtual graduation year end celebrations.
“What The Trust has given us is consistent and unwavering support. It is what makes our program go, our biggest funder. But beyond that, before we heard anything from any of our other funders, when we first understood how everything was going to be impacted, initially and immediately, The Trust told us they were not going anywhere. That we would be funded as expected and had been promised. It brought a lot of relief to everyone at Guitars over Guns,” Mosely said.
That same relief was felt by the Liberty City Optimist Club, according to Program Director Yolanda Bethune. “The?families we serve?struggle with hardships on a daily basis and going through a pandemic may make some feel as if there is no hope. (But) The Children’s Trust has empowered our team to utilize all resources to stay connected with our families and to remind them that we are all in this stressful time together,” Bethune said.
With the summer beckoning and a new set of challenges yet to reveal themselves, those who serve children and families can expect more hardship and uncertainty. But as so many Trust-funded providers have shown, with the proper support and courage to face whatever may come, the needs of the community can and will be met.