In the United States, the third Sunday in June is Father’s Day. Officially recognized as a holiday in 1972 by President Richard M. Nixon, this special day acknowledges the contribution that fathers and father figures make in their children’s lives.
This year, three weeks before Father’s Day, Mark Buchbinder, a surrogate father of 22 children, celebrated with them on June 3, combining their graduation from high school and his birthday. It was a dream come true.
Buchbinder recalled his dream: “More than a decade ago for my 60th birthday, I told friends and family — no party or presents, just send checks to help me start a program for less fortunate children to finish high school and college.” He dreamed of making a difference in the lives of children in low-income families. “You know, once a VISTA you are a VISTA forever! As a Jew, I am guided by the concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world). As a human being I am committed to community, making the world a better place for all, and leaving a positive footprint.”
Buchbinder and his wife, Marjorie, are former VISTA volunteers. The idea of VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America), a program to help end poverty, was the vision of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
“Margie and I met in 1967 in VISTA training in Atlanta,” he said. “Later, we were assigned to the economic opportunity program in Broward County. I set up legal services clinics and worked in migrant farmer camps (in 1967-68 there was no legal services programs for poor folks), and Margie worked in a low-income neighborhood in Dania known as Camp Blanding, doing community organization with community-defined issues.”
Buchbinder’s dream was based on the model developed by New York businessman and philanthropist Eugene M. Lang, who witnessed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech. In 1981, Lang urged students at an elementary school in East Harlem to dream their own dreams. He promised to help them finish college and sponsored 61 from high school to college.
Lang established a foundation, and over time affiliates formed throughout the country. I Have A Dream — Overtown is one of four models located in Miami-Dade County. A long-term goal of the model is to follow the same group of children from elementary school all the way to college, providing a comprehensive program of support along the way.
In 2003 the Buchbinders adopted the entire class of 51 first-graders at Phillis Wheatley, an inner city elementary school in Overtown, one of Miami’s lowest income areas. They began the monumental task of providing support and encouragement for children from first grade all the way to 12th grade and college. These were children they had never met. The Buchbinders are white and the children are black and Hispanic.
At the start of the program, parents and students received this offer: “Stick with us, stay in school and we will pay your way through college.” The children and their parents made the commitment with the Buchbinders, and by signing a contract the children became Dreamers.
The Buchbinders hired Eric Lewis, a former paraprofessional at Wheatley, as the project coordinator to staff the program. From first grade through 12th, he works with students, teachers, school administrators, human service providers in the community, and with the students’ families. Lewis is assisted by a VISTA volunteer who identifies appropriate resources to meet the needs of the families in order to stabilize the Dreamers home environment. Along the way a few Dreamers were added and a few lost.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools provided classroom space, support and general assistance at Wheatley. Florida International University provided space and experiences in various schools during the summers for academics and enrichment. Hands-on learning and interaction with students and faculty at Miami Dade College opened and focused minds to areas of study.
After elementary school, the Overtown Dreamers spent their high school years in a number of different locations. Some attended magnet programs for art, medical technology, law enforcement, drama and design.
College Assistance Program (CAP) advisor Jeanne Harper said, “My experience with the I Have A Dream-Overtown program has been very rewarding.”
“I’ve enjoyed working with many students who were anxious to explore all the options available to them, and most of them will be attending the college of their choice in the fall,” she said. “I have the greatest respect and admiration for what Margie and Mark Buchbinder have done for these young people.” Students will attend colleges including Florida International University, Miami Dade College, Florida State University and the University of Florida.
Assistance for this innovative program has come from a variety of organizations, individual generosity, The Children’s Trust, Take Stock In Children, and many friends and community partners who provided scholarships, field trips, and eye-opening opportunities. “Of all the philanthropic and community activities I’ve been involved in this has been the most exciting. It has made a generational impact and a difference in the lives of other families and the community,” Mark Buchbinder said.
As a result of the efforts of the Buchbinders, most of the Dreamers are the first in their families to attend college.
Milton Stubbs is an example. Proudly, he believes in the program and credits Project Coordinator Lewis for working closely with the Buchbinders to make the dream of college a reality for him and his classmates.
In 2009, I Have A Dream-Overtown was the recipient of The Children’s Trust Award for Excellence In Youth Programming. At this year’s graduation party, proclamations from the Miami-Dade County School Board and Miami-Dade County Mayor and Board of Commissioners recognized Mark and Marjorie for their exemplary achievement.
The Buchbinders humbly accepted the proclamations and also celebrated Mark’s birthday with the 22 graduates. “These are my presents 12 years later. Pretty great presents!” an exuberant Mark exclaimed.
The second and last class of 20-plus Dreamers will graduate in 2016.
In a few weeks, Mark and Marjorie will celebrate Father’s Day with their biological family: three children and six grandchildren. One grandchild is in college. Another recently graduated from high school and is preparing for college.
Mark has gone far beyond President Barack Obama’s Fatherhood Pledge “to do all I can to provide children in my home and throughout my community the encouragement and support they need to fulfill their potential.”
This is good news for our community. Success can happen if you follow up on your dream.
Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.