Helping People

Millennials jump into action after Irma, climbing 14 flights to deliver food and hugs

Jasmin Grant, a United Way volunteer, helps plant a vegetable garden at the Opa-locka Community Development Center on Oct. 28.
Jasmin Grant, a United Way volunteer, helps plant a vegetable garden at the Opa-locka Community Development Center on Oct. 28. For the Miami Herald

Five days after Hurricane Irma hit South Florida, a group of millennials learned through social media about 900 elderly residents trapped in their apartments in need of food, water and medicine. Power was out in all three towers and only one elevator was working with a generator.

On the ground floor, volunteers unloaded supplies and cooked large batches of arroz con pollo, but they needed a way to take it up 14 flights of stairs.

“I told my boss, I gotta go and I grabbed my gym clothes from the car,” said Rob Canales, co-chair of United Way’s LINC (Lead. Impact. Network. Change.) “All these things were going through my mind — my grandparents, the nursing home where those poor people died.”

Canales and other LINC members sprang into action, running up and down the stairs to deliver food and water to the residents.

Brett Abess and Taryn Gordon, two United Way volunteers, plant a vegetable garden at the Opa-locka Community Development Center. Alexia Fodere For the Miami Herald

LINC, which celebrated its two-year anniversary with a big party on Nov. 8, is made up of 330 millennials ages 22 to 30.

United Way created the group to harness the knowledge, talent and spirit of this generation to help make a difference in the community. Membership is $250 annually ($20 a month).

Last year, they raised $104,000 for United Way programs and volunteered 5,238 hours, including mentoring at-risk youth and beautifying schools and community centers.

“Millennials don’t care about giving money, they care about making an impact,” said Canales, a strategist at VS/Brooks, the Coral Gables ad agency. “We’re not like other networking groups; we’re not power suits and handshakes. We more like hi-fives and hugs.”

Established in 1924, the United Way of Miami-Dade has a rich history that runs parallel to the story of Miami. Over the years, the organization has adapted to serve Miami’s ever-changing demographics.

Canales and young professionals like him drive that evolution, introducing new ideas and new ways of doing things, such as incorporating social media.

“We’re the reason the United Way has a Snapchat account. We take pride in the fact that we made that happen,” Canales said. “LINC’s purpose is also to keep the United Way relevant.”

LINC is one of United Way of Miami-Dade’s five giving communities, which also include Young Leaders, Women United, Tocqueville Society and Continue United. Members of giving communities give financially, while engaging in projects that support the organization’s three main areas of focus: education, financial stability and health.

“We all share the same mission of connecting people in order to solve problems,” said Ana Veiga Milton, who serves on the United Way board and is a Tocqueville Society member. Her two sons are part of LINC and Young Leaders.

With nearly 1,000 members under 40, Young Leaders is credited with launching the hands-on giving movement within the nonprofit.

Their most recent project, Turnip the Beet!, involved planting a vegetable garden at the Opa-locka Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit that works to transform under-resourced communities.

United Way volunteers plant a vegetable garden at the Opa-locka Community Development Center on Oct. 28, 2017. Alexia Fodere For the Miami Herald

The garden will provide healthy food options and serve as an educational tool to teach children where food comes.

Another recent project involved creating a collage wall at D.A. Dorsey Educational Center in Miami, using tiles painted by students and painting a mural designed by a local artist.

“The United Way opens the doors to so many opportunities,” said Eddie Martinez, who has been a Young Leader for more than 12 years and spearheaded the mural project.

Martinez began contributing to the United Way when he was 8 by bringing pennies to school for the annual United Way drive. If they reached the class goal, they were rewarded with a pizza party.

He gives more than $1,000 (minimum membership fee for Young Leaders) through paycheck deductions, which he said makes it easier to give.

“It’s like with those pennies,” he said. “One penny doesn’t do much, but a bunch of pennies can do a lot.”

Now he’s the head of the United Way campaign at MCM, where he’s a contractor, and is encouraging new generations of changemakers.

“A LINC person will eventually become a Young Leader, who will eventually, hopefully, become a supporter of the United Way for life,” Martinez said.