It’s a haunting memory that remains forever etched in his mind. Barely nine years old at the time, Jorge Plasencia was participating in a service project through his grade school. He and fellow students were visiting the Miami Children’s Home Society, a shelter for abused and neglected kids. “I remember there was a baby, and her entire face was burned. I asked what had happened to her and was told her father had burned her—with a hot iron,” Plasencia says, his voice giving way to a gentle tremble, even all these years later. “I grew up in a house with so much love that I couldn’t imagine a home in which something like that would happen. That day I thought, when I grow up I want to help these kids.”
Talk about keeping a promise. Just a few years later, while in high school, Plasencia and a few friends founded a non-profit organization dedicated to helping improve the lives of the children at the very same shelter he had visited. That group eventually evolved into one of Miami’s most highly respected charities—Amigos for Kids, which not only works to keep kids safe but to try to make their lives brighter through after school programs, parent education classes and abuse prevention literature. Now 22 years old, the group is best known for its annual toy drive, which has made holiday wishes come true for thousands of South Florida children, as well as its star-studded annual "Domino Night," which is coming up this month (see sidebar for details). Here, Plasencia, the chairman and CEO of República advertising agency, talks more about his connection to the group, its initiatives and what they hope to accomplish for kids everywhere.
There’s something special about the Amigos for Kids toy drive, isn’t there?
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Yes, it’s not just a drive in which we collect toys and randomly give them to kids. We actually go out and ask the children to tell us three wishes they have. Then we identify sponsors, or just people, who can make two of those wishes come true for them. They might be asking for a bicycle or a Barbie or a goldfish, but we’ve also heard kids ask for food for their family or a bed to sleep on or a dining room table. Then, just before the holidays, we go on a caravan all over Miami and deliver their gifts—in person! It’s an amazing experience.
You’ve held so many events with kids who benefit from these efforts. Is there a moment that truly stands?
I have so many moments that stand out. Any time one of the kids who is now an adult gives a testimony on Amigos, on what we did for them and how they are where they are in part because of what they received from us. Just last year, one of the girls who we helped when she was young was the speaker at a luncheon we host every year. She talked about how when her mother had passed away the people at Amigos, we were her family. For me, that’s the most amazing validation.
Amigos does a lot of work with schools as well. Tell us about that.
In 2004, we started an after-school program at José Martí Park in East Little Havana. We provide the kids help with homework, have all sorts of activities and, most important, keep them off the streets. The program started with 60 kids and now there are 150. We also hold a back-to-school backpack drive every year and help kids whose parents have no means get everything they need, like notebooks, pencils and other school supplies. And in April, during National Child Abuse Prevention Month, we go into Miami-Dade County Public Schools to help create awareness around abuse prevention and promote positive parenting skills.
What is your ultimate goal for Amigos?
I think we have an opportunity to become the true leader in child abuse prevention nationally, especially in the Hispanic community. I would like it to continue to grow, continue to advocate and go beyond Miami.