Purple clouds were scudding in from the west when Isabella Capote, Sahil Patel and a couple dozen of their classmates scurried around laying mulch on the newly planted Memorial/ Serenity Garden at the Keys Gate Charter School in Homestead. This was the last event in a months-long labor to pay lasting tribute to two students and one teacher, all of whom had died in the past three years.
“It’s beautiful,” said Capote, a 12-year-old sixth-grader. “I like looking at it because it makes me feel close to nature. It makes me proud” to have worked on it.
The garden, full of foxtail palms and philodendrons, penta and hibiscus blooms, is also tangible proof of the efforts by a countywide school club that defied the odds when it was launched after Hurricane Andrew 21 years ago. Members are now hoping to defy those odds again by keeping the non-profit viable even as government grants dry up.
Drug Free Youth In Town, or DFYIT, is a victim of The Great Recession. Known for its community service work and its membership requirement — members have to pass a drug test and agree to random testing — the group has seen the number of school clubs cut by almost half. Yet the group’s work is far from done, according to one of its founders.
“The last few years have been very, very tough,” said co-founder Marlene Josefsberg. “We’ve had to cut way back. It has nothing to do with kids not wanting it or with there being no need. Quite the opposite.”
Membership in DFYIT is free but drug testing is expensive, as are field trips and community service projects, Josefsberg added. The non-profit is reluctant to approach parents or appeal to the PTA because the idea behind DFYIT is what Josefsberg calls “positive peer pressure, kids turning other kids off from using drugs.” Taking money from these sources would introduce parents into clubs that have prided themselves on being student-run.
Private and public donations subsidize club activities, but private funding dried to a trickle by 2009, followed by public dollars. The numbers tell the story: During the 2006-07 school year, pre-recession, there were 63 middle and high schools in Miami and 21 schools in Broward hosting DFYIT clubs that served about 9,200 students. The operating budget for both counties, at its peak, totaled $1.5 million, with about 80 percent coming from local and state government grants.
Today, only 39 schools in Dade and Broward, including Keys Gate Charter, have clubs. Membership is about 3,500 students, and the budget has been cut in half. Support staff has shrunk from 22 to nine employees. The DFYIT board, comprised of local community leaders, is looking at various fundraising options. The last fundraiser, chaired by former Sen. Bob Graham and his wife, was held at the house of prominent Miami attorney A. J. Barranco.
Adrian Lopez, DFYIT director of operations, fears the public may think that the anti-drug work of years past is done. Not so.
“Prevention is an ongoing effort,” he said, “a constant battle. You don’t just stop and it miraculously continues to each generation.”
Service projects like the Keys Gate garden are a cornerstone of the DFYIT philosophy: Give students responsibility to build up their self esteem, a key part to preventing drug abuse. Club members at the school must complete 10 hours of community service, but most do much more, said Sandra Beltran, the dean of students who doubles as the club sponsor. Students visit senior citizens, tutor fellow students, paint murals and help teachers.
“It focuses them on the positive,” Beltran said. “They feel they belong.”
The club’s efforts to promote a drug-free lifestyle can offset temptation from other sources, she added, especially if the students pal around with peers who have also pledged to stay clean. “I’ve had several students tell me my dad is an alcoholic or some other relative is doing drugs, but the club provides an alternative for them.”
Isabella, the sixth-grader, said she likes the club’s education efforts. “We talk about drugs and what they do to the brain,” she said.
Her friend Sahil enjoys that too, but it’s the activities that keep him coming back. “We get to do fun projects,” he added.
In 1992, when Josefsberg and other community leaders launched the first DFYIT club at Homestead High two months after Hurricane Andrew had pummeled the area, the activities drew the students. Josefsberg had visited a similar club in Texas that drug-tested students, but it didn’t have that community service component. “It didn’t sound like fun. It didn’t have heart.”
Over the years, DFYIT has hosted college information events and annual youth summits on a variety of subjects from substance abuse to date rape and gang violence. It’s awarded scholarships and launched a YouTube video contest as part of its SoBe Sober campaign, which draws attention to the dangers of drinking.
“We are combating the perception that everybody does it because that’s just not true,” Lopez said. “Prevention is working, but our efforts have to continue. We can’t stop now.”