Frustrated with a renewed burst of violence in the community he had lived in all his life, Octavius Veargis decided it was time to step up for West Coconut Grove. The result? A grassroots nonprofit called the One Grove Foundation — a youth tutoring, mentoring, public assistance, and outreach program all combined into one.
“Kids need attention,” and in the roughly 70-block neighborhood nestled between Coral Gables and Coconut Grove that’s been blighted by poverty, unemployment, crime and urban decay for decades, Veargis says, “attention is what they’re lacking.”
With One Grove, Veargis is starting to bring change.
“There was a lot of crime going on, and I decided to step up for the community — to try and put something together so that anybody could come out and do something,” Veargis says.
Harnessing community outrage and grief after the fatal shooting of 20-year-old lifelong Groveite Frederick Gibson last April, Veargis rallied as many concerned West Grove parents and residents as he could over to Esther Mae Armbrister Park off Grand Avenue.
At first, he didn’t know exactly what the plan would be — he just wanted to get people together to finally “do something big, and something positive.”
The first on the scene was Ernest Jenkins — the park’s track coach — and together with the people who trickled in, they started having a conversation about longstanding community concerns over a lack of support and opportunity for kids in the neighborhood.
“I sent a text out on Facebook, trying to get the community to get out. Really what I was trying to do — there’s like 200 people in the Grove, so I was just trying to get 10 dollars from everybody and do something big, and something positive on the spot,” Veargis says. “I had a lot of responses. After the shooting everybody was angry.”
And so One Grove was born.
With the help of a handful of dedicated volunteers, Veargis, the newfound nonprofit’s president, and Jenkins, its vice president, got right to work. In June, they hosted their inaugural event with the Grove’s first annual Fun Day — a community event at Carver Park that featured a kickball tournament and free food along with health screenings and a college information booth.
By September, they had organized a crime prevention seminar for kids and their parents in collaboration with the Miami Police Department, a town hall meeting, a gospel rap concert, had led a peace walk, publicized job-training and résumé-writing workshops, and circulated petitions. As school rolled around, they got into the education game and teamed with the Sankofa Society to throw a school supply giveaway.
That’s around when the “constantly evolving” organization, according to Veargis, decided to directly tackle a longstanding need in the community for more after-school programming.
In the West Grove, if you’re between the ages of 5-12, you can go to the Barnyard — a neighborhood community center and after-school program where Michol Wimberly, One Grove’s secretary, says she got some of the critical “wisdom, time and the support” that allowed her to go to college, travel and get a career. If you’re in your teens, there are sports clubs at Armbrister Park. But if you’re in middle or high school looking for any kind of homework help, according to Wimberly, you’re out of luck.
So to try and remedy that, One Grove began offering tutoring lessons every Monday night at Armbrister Park, from 6 to 8 p.m. Kids of all ages were welcome to get help in whatever subjects they needed, from Spanish to geometry — or to use the park computers, a key resource in a community where less than half of all households have internet access.
And true to One Grove’s all-encompassing mandate to give youth “attention,” these after-school sessions are also an opportunity for kids to go to their mentors with whatever problems — whether familial, social or educational — they might have.
Volunteer Laura Mora, for example, will help kids with their Spanish homework — but she’ll also use her expertise in health care administration to help parents navigate public assistance programs like Medicaid.
Jenkins was at one of these sessions when he asked the kids in the room: how many of you have both parents at home? Out of about 20, he says, only one raised their hand.
He wants One Grove to help empower parents, but where that fails, this is what he tells kids: “We’ll be your Mom, we’ll be your Dad. Please just open up to us. Ask us what you need. We’ll try our best to give it to you.”
On the first night of the foundation’s after-school sessions in October, only five kids showed up, but more soon poured in. To meet growing demand, One Grove quickly added Wednesday to its weekly roster.
But two days a week isn’t nearly enough, according to Wimberly. “We’ve only been able to give them Monday and Wednesday — they want Monday through Friday.”
And while the nonprofit does want to extend its services, Wimberly says they’re maxed out.
Managed by roughly 10 volunteers — all of whom have full-time jobs, and most of whom have families of their own — and operating on a shoestring budget cobbled together from doughnut sales and a few private donations, One Grove is cash-strapped and short-staffed.
For Jenkins, more funding would be great. He dreams of one day taking kids on a field trip to Washington, D.C., and jokes that more immediately, it would be nice to stop using makeshift leaders. But that’s what the foundation really needs right now, he says, is more volunteers to mentor, tutor and organize.
“We get people inboxing us every day saying they want to be part of One Grove, but it’s not a matter of [signing up]. Just come out and show it. Come out and show these kids that you care,” he says.
Wimberly puts it this way: “It takes a village to raise a child.”
In February, One Grove collaborated with KROMA gallery on Grand Avenue — the newest initiative by the Coconut Grove Collaborative, a local community revitalization and development nonprofit — to put on a “living history” show with its member kids.
The premise was simple: each child or teen picked a prominent African American, alive or dead, studied up on their life stories, and prepared a speech to impersonate them. For the show, they scattered throughout the gallery, dressed like their alter egos, “press me” buttons pinned to each of their lapels.
With the push of a paper button, visitors could then see Florence Griffith Joyner — still considered, 15 1/2 years after her death, the fastest woman of all time — come alive again in 14-year-old track and field athlete Shekinah Rachel. A bespectacled 15-year-old Deiontae Fance was a proud Malcolm X.
Jane Bolin, the first African-American woman to graduate from Yale Law was also there, reincarnated in Fen’Drea Lopez, 13, who said it was Bolin’s perseverance in the face of judgment that resonated with her.
“Knowing what it feels like to be judged — and learning how to keep your head up through all of it,” Lopez said.
Surrounded by children empowered by their own histories — and, amid the bustle of their friends and relatives, finally at the center of attention — this is what Coconut Grove Village Councilman Thaddeus Scott told the Miami Herald: “We adults — those of us who can — need to help. […] This is just a minute combination of what can and will be happening in this community.”