For decades, the James E. Scott Community Association has been the principal -- and sometimes the only -- provider of basic services such as day care, job training and meals for the elderly in Liberty City and other poor, mostly black neighborhoods.
Since its founding 66 years ago, JESCA has grown into a sprawling United Way affiliate with a budget of $7 million and programs scattered from Perrine to Carol City.
It has weathered several fiscal crises in its long history. The latest, which began more than a year ago, forced the agency to lay off a third of its nearly 300 employees to cope with a six-figure deficit.
Volunteers who have worked to help JESCA survive say it's an essential actor in Dade's black community. It serves an estimated 8,000 people every day, most of them in Liberty City, and most among the county's poorest residents.
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"JESCA is an organization that is doing a tremendous amount of good in that community, " said John Hall, a business consultant who leads a United Way task force that is helping the agency overhaul its financial management. "They clearly are an anchor."
Founded in 1925 as the Colored Association for Family Welfare, the agency was later renamed after a black Army captain who devoted much of his life to helping the community. James E. Scott served as the agency's director for years.
"They're part of the fabric and history of the community, " said T. Willard Fair, president of the Urban League of Greater Miami.
From the outset, the association directed its efforts to what Fair described as "the hard-core disadvantaged."
Its original goals remain largely unchanged: to give basic assistance to needy blacks, spur employment and education and reduce crime in the community.
JESCA grew along with government funding for social services in the 1960s and 1970s. Its focus is on the young and the elderly.
One of its earliest programs was a day nursery at the Liberty Square housing project. Today, JESCA, with offices at 2389 NW 54th St., has an early-childhood development center at Liberty Square, one of eight day-care centers it operates. Four of those centers are run under contract with Dade County, including the day-care center at the Metro-Dade Center downtown.
Besides basic day care, the centers also offer Head Start and other programs designed to stimulate the development of disadvantaged children.
JESCA also operates 10 centers for senior citizens, mostly in Liberty City and Coconut Grove, where it gets federal funding to serve daily hot meals. It also delivers meals to the homebound.
Its family-management center in Liberty City offers family counseling and senior companionship, a program under which senior citizens receive a stipend to visit the elderly and homebound.
It provides housing, counseling and help in finding jobs for released prisoners at two halfway houses in Liberty City and Perrine. And it operates job-training and summer youth employment programs for the Private Industry Council.
"All those programs fill a void that no one else is filling out there, " said Israel Milton, director of the county Department of Human Resources, which helps fund JESCA under various contracts.
The agency hired day-school teachers and other employees from its community. Many were so dedicated they accepted relatively low salaries, said Charles George, JESCA's board chairman for the past 10 months.
"The teachers come from the community for the most part, and they're sensitive to the needs of the community, " George said.
Ben Guilford II, Metro-Dade's director of solid waste and a JESCA board member, said the agency has also served as "a calming influence" during periods of riot and strife.
The flush days for JESCA came to an end with the 1980s and the Reagan administration's budget cuts. Debts piled up as the agency's finances grew troubled.
In January 1990, a meals caterer sued JESCA after a $42,000 check from the agency bounced. The suit was settled. But some paychecks to employees bounced. To cover some expenses, the agency had to take out loans from a bank and the United Way.
Part of the problem was chronic overstaffing. Despite funding cuts, JESCA administrators were unwilling to lay off employees.
A Barry University study found that 70 percent of JESCA's budget was going to pay salaries. George, the new chairman, ordered layoffs and a 15 percent cut in expenses.
The United Way has formed a volunteer task force to help the agency replace its antiquated fiscal system. George has also formed a task force.
Over the years, the board has included prominent civic activists from the black, Hispanic and Anglo communities. The members have included former Florida Attorney General Robert Shevin, former School Board Chairman Paul Cejas, U.S. Rep. William Lehman, former Deputy County Manager Dewey Knight and Assistant County Manager Tony Ojeda.