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After-school program to grow, help more kids in Little Havana

 

bmedina@elnuevoherald.com

Within a year, the Church of St. John Bosco in Little Havana will be able to add 200 children to its cadre of young leaders.

At an emotional ceremony last week, the directors of the Leadership Learning Center that operates on the church’s campus and offers after-school educational programs, began construction of an additional building that will house about 200 children in 2015.

The after-school program at St. John Bosco, 1366 NW First St., is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Seven years ago the program almost closed due to lack of money, but stayed open with donations from the community.

Mirta Fuentes, the center’s executive director, said the program has helped thousands of students of low-income families in Miami-Dade County.

“Most of the parents of students who come here are immigrants, work long hours and have no [money] to pay for special after-school educational programs,” Fuentes said. “In Miami it is easy to be confused with the luxury and pretty buildings, but the truth is that there is much need in the community.”

Currently about 125 children from a dozen schools in the county, from kindergarten to the senior year of high school, benefit from the center.

One of them is Gricelda Ramos, of Honduran descent, who began coming to the center when she was 10. Today she is 17 and is a senior at MAST Academy on Virginia Key. Ramos sang the Star-Spangled Banner at Tuesday’s ceremony.

“I’m the daughter of a single mother, grew up in Little Havana and we have low resources. I came to this center because my mother could not buy me a computer then,” Ramos said. “This program has helped me in everything, from providing me with a computer when there was none at home and helping me meet mentors, to paying my fees for college applications.”

Soon Ramos will start college, and she plans to study international relations. Meanwhile, she continues coming to the center and conducting a children’s choir she founded with 10 of the younger students.

Success stories like Ramos’s served as inspiration to Ada Armas, who has been a mentor at the center for years. Armas, a Cuban-born doctor, and her husband José Armas, also a doctor, donated funds to build the new building at the center.

“We have the means and we do it because we have seen how this center is a necessity in the community, helping those children have a better development in their schools,” said Ada Armas. “Though it may sound like a cliché, education is the basis of prosperity for any human being and the best way to provide security to new generations.”

Yet there is still much to be done, Fuentes said at Tuesday’s event before an audience that included several city and county officials. The pastor of St. John Bosco, the Rev. Juan Carlos Paguaga, officially blessed the construction.

“I am grateful for the extra space we will have because it means that many more students will have opportunities,” Fuentes said. “Nothing can be sadder than to tell a mother that we cannot accept her child because we have no space.”

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