Students living in some of Miami’s most challenged neighborhoods are full of potential, but often lack the opportunities and resources to get ahead.
To address this need, the United Way of Miami-Dade launched the Youth Institute in 2016, a year-long program to help at-risk high school students succeed and become agents of change in their communities. This summer, the first group of 20 students completed the pilot program, now in its second year.
The curriculum includes discussions about issues related to education, financial stability and health, building leadership skills, service learning projects, planning for college, and exposing the students to new experiences.
“It’s much more than a simple one-off volunteer project to paint a fence or provide mentoring. The fellows learn about the big picture and how career opportunities can lead them to help with impactful change,” said Darrell Payne, co-chair of the United Way’s Education II subcommittee, which funds the Youth Institute.
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Youth Institute participants are nominated by United Way partner organizations and asked to complete the sentence, “If you were the mayor of Miami-Dade County, you would …” to identify a common issue to focus on as a group. Two years in a row, the students’ number one concern has been gun violence.
“It reminds us of this day-to-day issue students have to face in their communities,” said Diana Santangelo, an educator and director of Education II at the United Way. “How are they supposed to go to school and learn?”
First year fellow Jerry Paret, 19, has witnessed crime first-hand from the passenger seat of a police car as part of Miami-Dade Police’s ride-along program since he was 16. Before that, he volunteered with the department’s Explorer program, which fosters a positive relationship between youth and law enforcement through community service.
“I always knew I wanted to be in law enforcement,” Paret said. “I’d rather be out with police helping the community than partying with my friends.”
For the Youth Institute’s service learning competition, Paret’s team wrote a grant for a project to educate kids about violence. The team won $5,000 to materialize the project at Vineyard school in Coconut Grove, where members spoke to kids about resolving problems without resorting to violence and distributed about 100 books.
Other components of the program included a trip to Arizona, where the students engaged in team-building activities, field trips to meet professionals from different industries, a youth violence forum with community leaders, college campus tours, and mentorship sessions with members of the United Way’s LINC (Lead. Impact. Network. Change) millennial group.
“The Youth Institute is focused on helping successful young people enter society and have an impact on others, rise up and change our communities,” Paret said.
He’s now pursuing a finance degree at Miami Dade College’s North Campus, wants to enter the police academy and eventually study law. He’s also prepping for his real estate license exam.
The Youth Institute also creates a unique network of mentors and supporters who remain available for students beyond the span of the program.
“It’s really important that they know we’re not just there for them from September to June,” Santangelo said. “We want them to know we’re involved in their lives as long as they need us.”
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