United Way of Miami-Dade turns 90 and eyes its next century of community service

From the homeless to the hurricane-ravaged, immigrants to natives, United Way of Miami-Dade has rebuilt lives for 90 years and sees education as a major component of its next 90.

06/24/2014 4:35 PM

06/24/2014 6:58 PM

By 16, Angel Terrero, had already been arrested 10 times.

“I tore away from my family … I turned to the streets,” said Terrero, 24, of Opa-locka. “I started using drugs, got involved in gangs at 13, and started digging a hole for myself I couldn’t get out of. I got arrested at 13 for the first time. I was out of control when I got arrested for robbing a couple of houses and was almost tried as an adult at 16. The court had mercy on me and sent me to a juvenile program.”

Terrero credits that program, AMIKids, funded by the United Way, for his considerably brighter future. Today, Terrero is an admissions counselor at Trinity International University in Davie, where he is aiming for a master’s degree in psychology, and an associate pastor at Hialeah Church of the Nazarene.

Turning 90

Perhaps it was people like Terrero organizers hoped to help when the precursor to the United Way of Miami-Dade was founded 90 years ago. Dry goods magnate E.B. Douglas was its first chairman.

“They helped me find stability and really find a foundation, a different perspective,” Terrero said of AMIKids and United Way. “I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the guidance and hand they gave me.”

This year, United Way of Miami-Dade, which took its name in 1972 after shedding earlier handles Miami Community Chest and United Fund of Dade County, plans to celebrate its 90th anniversary with a renewed focus on several goals, said Gene Schaefer, chairman of its board of directors and Bank of America president for Miami-Dade.

“We have a committed and caring board of 51 members and an army of volunteers in the thousands that have made all the successes in the past happen, but we are excited about looking forward,” Schaefer said. “The focus continues to be on education, financial stability and health. We consider those the the building blocks.”

Schaefer calls it a “second century initiative” as the charitable organization stares down its 100th anniversary in 2024. Strategy maps, diversification of revenue streams and engaging more people are among the goals to serve the 119 programs at 58 agencies in which United Way invests. The aid helped nearly 99,000 people in Miami-Dade in 2013. Total revenue during the 2012-13 fiscal year reached $63 million.

Ninety, said United Way of Miami-Dade president and CEO Harve Mogul, “is a convenient way to place a bookmark in some history book that says, ‘Here we are.’ How do you use that bookmark to get people excited about the possibilities of getting better?

Life and times of ’24

But 90, in a young city like Miami, well, that is an accomplishment. The city was only 28 years old when the organization was established. The Freedom Tower on Biscayne Boulevard, which, decades later, would process thousands of Cuban immigrants who were aided by the United Way, was still a year away from opening. Women gained the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment only four years earlier.

There are 1,300 United Ways in the country and Mogul worked at chapters in Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh after joining the organization in 1973. He was named CEO of Miami’s branch in 1991. The other cities “were very corporate and were communities where history contained their greatness as opposed to [their] future. In Miami … all of us have a stake in creating what our greatness will be in the future.”

Miami-Dade has grown alongside its local United Way. Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM), The Toastmasters club and Mercedes-Benz were all formed in 1924. George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue had its first performance in New York City as did Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Back then, in April 1924, a three-day drive, the United Way’s first campaign, raised $136,095 to support 12 local agencies, including Salvation Army, American Red Cross, and the YMCA and YWCA.

Eileen Maloney-Simon, CEO of the YWCA still marvels at the early United Way’s pluck at supporting her agency.

“That, in and of itself, was a bold move, because the YWCA is a women’s-focused organization and if you can think back to 1924, we weren’t that popular a bunch,” Maloney-Simon said from her office in Overtown. “I think that was a bold move on the part of a community that, itself, was just starting out.

“I have to tell you that the United Way, over all these generations, what would we have been able to do without them? It’s not as though they give us millions but they make investments in our organization in such a way that it allows us to leverage those dollars to attract additional dollars,” she said.

Early challenges

The United Way’s first major challenge — perhaps Miami’s as well — blew across South Florida in September 1926 when a Category 4 hurricane killed 113 people, and effectively halted Miami’s real estate boom. United Way campaign chairman R.B. (Roddy) Burdine, namesake of the former department store chain, mobilized 25,000 workers after the storm.

Three years later, the stock market crashed. The resulting Great Depression nearly capsized the Miami Community Chest as fundraising efforts were suspended for a decade. The Miami office remained open solely to help guide welfare agencies.

Not that some people didn’t try to revive the struggling organization. Mafia boss Al Capone, who decamped on Palm Island in Miami Beach, dropped a thousand bucks into the Miami Community Chest. Officials soon decided not to accept the gangster’s gift.

William J. Matheson, a member of the pioneering Miami family, bequeathed $40,000 to the Chest in 1930, the organization’s first major gift. That donation, unlike Capone’s, was accepted.

In 1939, the Community Chest was reorganized and incorporated and raised $233,000 for 23 agencies.

In January 1941, 11 months before the United States entered World War II, the Chest introduced the unit account system, which encouraged companies to conduct individual campaigns with specific goals tailored to their firm. The innovative fundraising step remains a key United Way strategy.

Parallels in time

Mogul sees parallels between the United Way of 1924 and the more contemporary version.

“In tracking the history, what was amazing to me was how many of the things they were doing back then were precursors to what we are doing now. Then, they were dealing with new residents, people coming from the Bahamas, but also folks from up north. They cared about trying to reach out to them and the original agencies are still with us and still doing good work and that’s very cool,” he said.

“The 90s is a good example as a group of people wanting to reach out to 20,000 Cuban-Americans who were coming across the strait, along with an equal amount of Haitians. We had hundreds of volunteers, teachers, the Estefans [Gloria and Emilio] worked on this thing, helping those people come to Miami,” Mogul said. “It was not a Mariel. It was a smooth, easy transition for the community. And it happened not because of some major decision by some major entity, but rather by people who really cared and devised a system. Creative ideas and hard work and people, one at a time.”

Earlier, in 1960, the United Fund joined with city leaders to form the Cuban Refugee Committee to help feed, clothe and find employment for the thousands of refugees fleeing Fidel Castro’s regime.

Even after more than 50 years, the memories pull fresh tears from United Way volunteer Tony Argiz.

“I came here, to this country, in 1962, through the operation Pedro Pan that basically allowed about 14,000 unaccompanied children to leave Cuba between 1960 and 1962,” he said, his voice breaking. Argiz, CEO of the accounting firm, Morrison, Brown, Argiz & Farra, arrived with a brother, 19 years his senior, who didn’t have the means to care for a 9-year-old in exile.

Catholic Charities, which received funding from United Way, placed Argiz in a boarding school in Tampa for five years until his parents were able to leave the island.

“I’ll always remember how these people helped me during those years,” said Argiz, 61, who is now a grandfather and father to three grown children with wife, Conchi, in Coral Gables. “Once I developed certain professional capabilities …one of the first organizations I wanted to help was the United Way. They touched so many lives and helped so many different people in key areas of education. If it wasn’t for education, most of the Cuban refugee exiles wouldn’t have been able to succeed.”

Education initiatives

Argiz devotes time to educational initiatives sponsored by the United Way at Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart for its after-school tutoring program at The Barnyard Community Center in Coconut Grove. He also works with the United Way Center for Excellence in Early Education, which was established in 2007.

The center promotes quality early care and education and was the result of a $20 million dollar campaign. “Wiring a child’s brain correctly between ages 4 and 5 is the smartest way to invest dollars,” Mogul said.

“The United Way believes, like we do, that intervening early in a child’s life helps guarantee a better success rate in the future,” said YWCA’s Maloney-Simon, whose organization partnered with the United Way in the ’90s to help run a neighborhood family center in Overtown to offer programming for pre-schoolers, including computer education, to help ready them for school. A breast and cervical cancer program to help low-income, uninsured women and men (who can get breast cancer) obtain low-cost screenings was another YWCA-United Way pairing. Last year, more than 7,000 people received education and screenings for chronic diseases, said Maloney-Simon.

When the recession strangled the economy in 2008, The United Way Center for Financial Stability was established to provide resources and job training, free tax preparation, foreclosure prevention and financial counseling.

Next 90

Mogul, a widower and father of two who lives in the Gables, wakes each morning with a sense of urgency. Ninety years is cool, but the next 24 hours in a county of 2.6 million are as important.

“We are coming out of the recession and there are new buildings and we’re a global place…but there are challenges,” he said. “There is so much talent and so much energy in this town of Miami but we’re not always tapping into it. There are whole swaths of this community who weren’t here dozens of years ago — European families, Venezuelans — who are bringing skills and talent.

“The more we are being inclusive and bringing these people into the system, the better off we are. There’s potential there, but a ways to go.”

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