Hundreds of Liberty City children filed out of yellow schoolbuses and onto the Village Green park in Key Biscayne for an outdoor Christmas party. They were greeted Saturday by Santa Claus before running out onto the playing field to race each other, do cartwheels, toss footballs and play on an inflatable slide.
Miami Fire Rescue parked one of its trucks on the green and turned on a fire hose so the kids could cool off. After a few hours of play and some lunch, white vans carrying mounds of bagged toys drove onto the green, and volunteers handed out gifts — make-up sets, basketballs and soccer balls, board games and educational toys — to each of the 200 children. The adults also got a few treats — turkeys, hams and pies for their holiday festivities.
The day of giving and fun was put together by Key Biscayne Police Chief Charles R. Press in partnership with the Key Biscayne Community Foundation, the village of Key Biscayne and the Miami Children’s Initiative, a nonprofit organization focused on transforming Liberty City and investing in the community’s children.
More than 10 years ago, Press founded Chief Press’ Holiday Relief Fund, which provided families in Liberty City with food and toys for kids during the holidays.
“Our goal was to provide children with gifts on Christmas and to provide senior citizens with turkeys during Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Press said. “We’d target those specific groups for the one-time opportunity, and then we’d go away for a year and do fundraising.”
The chief wanted to do something that would have more of an impact on the community than giving toys for the holidays. Two years ago, Press partnered his foundation with the Miami Children’s Initiative to help rebuild the Liberty City block-by-block by providing parenting classes, employment opportunities and vocational training for adults and afterschool and summer learning programs for kids.
Press’ foundation also provides help in emergency situations, like when a family needed a new washing machine and dryer for the kids’ school uniforms. Since the start of the partnership, the chief’s foundation was renamed to Chief Press’ Charitable Foundation.
“At that point, I felt that we weren’t just a holiday relief fund anymore,” Press said. “We were in this for the long-term and we were there as a foundation to provide long-term resources and support for the community.”
While the charitable foundation provides help to the Liberty City community in several ways, the annual Christmas party is one of the foundation’s marquee events.
The party was catered, tents and tables set up, a DJ played music and the kids competed in obstacle courses and other games. One of the components of the partnerships working toward rebuilding Liberty City is improving the overall health of the community.
James Williams, a physical education teacher at Maya Angelou Elementary School, runs Carnival Full of Fitness, a nonprofit obesity prevention program for kids.
“We disguise fitness within a fun, carnival-like environment,” Williams said. “They’re having fun and don’t know that they’re getting a full-body workout at the same time. It’s like a Jedi mind trick.”
Williams and his team set up stations with games that exercise different parts of the body. The obstacle courses work on speed and agility, the balloon pumps work on upper body and the ring toss works on the lower body when kids squat to pick up and toss the rings.
And the kids did enjoy the games.
Rayvele Carter, 9, loved the ring toss and balloon-popping game. She was also great with a hula-hoop.
“I’m having so much fun,” she said.
Royce Henton, 36, a Liberty City resident, went to the Christmas party with her son and three daughters. She said she was grateful to the Miami Children’s Initiative and Press’ foundation for the opportunities they’ve helped the community achieve and the love they have shown the community.
“A lot of things I thought I was unable to pay for for my kids, they helped with,” Henton said. “It means a lot to know we are loved.”
Love and opportunity was what Press wanted to give when he started the foundation and became involved with the Miami Children’s Initiative.
“I grew up knowing that if I went to school and got an education, that I had a chance to be something,” Press said. “All these kids should grow up thinking they have an opportunity.”
Seeing the public’s mistrust for police officers in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Press hopes community outreach can help forge better relationships between the public and the police. He hoped that, after the Christmas party, there would be a “connect” between a police officer and a child or adult, especially adults and children who live in an area that sees so much violence.
“Their interactions in relation to police officers are usually cops aren’t there just to give them a lollypop and tell them hello. The cops come in their homes because they’re responding to calls. There’s violence in the neighborhoods,” Press said.
Press said he hopes the day on the Village Green will give the kids hope for the future and that they’ll remember the party as a great day.
“I know memories come and go, and I know hard living makes it difficult to maintain sweet memories, but you gotta hope, right?” Press said.