Helping People

Children’s Trust still advocating for kids, 15 years after inception

Left to right, Hilsia Noemi Hernandez, Gabriel Quijada,3, and his mother Gladys Orellana, during an Amigos for Kids parenting session to help parents learn how to become better parents, held at Shenandoah Elementary on Thursday, October 26, 2017.
Left to right, Hilsia Noemi Hernandez, Gabriel Quijada,3, and his mother Gladys Orellana, during an Amigos for Kids parenting session to help parents learn how to become better parents, held at Shenandoah Elementary on Thursday, October 26, 2017.

Miami-Dade County really cares about kids — so much so that 15 years ago, voters approved dedicating $50 per $100,000 of property value to improve their lives through The Children’s Trust.

Then in fall 2008, when home values were plummeting, county voters approved reauthorizing the funding by a resounding 86 percent.

“Fundamentally, we built a movement that embraces all of us,” said Dave Lawrence, the former Miami Herald publisher who retired to start The Children’s Trust. “It’s one community saying, ‘Here’s what we want for our children.’ 

Today the trust supports more than 200 programs to better the lives of children from birth on.

“We take a cradle-to-graduation approach when funding children’s services, in order to provide families with programs that meet their needs. We know being a parent is a tough job, and we want to help make sure that every child in Miami-Dade County reaches their full potential,” said Jim Haj, the Trust’s executive director.

The largest chunk of money goes to youth development, funding everything from summer camps and after-school programs to internships and reading enrichment.

Another program offers every 3-year-old in the county free books. Parents can register via The Children’s Trust home page, They will receive a new book each month along with book-related activities to do with their child, explained Rachel Spector, who oversees early childhood development programs.

The Trust also funds preschool intervention programs, such as Early Discovery, for children who don’t have the 30 percent lag required for special education but fall in the “10 to 29 percent delay” area, Spector said.

The preschool age is “when children are most able to benefit and have the highest likelihood that the challenges will not interfere with their ability to learn. Most of the children that go through our Early Discovery programs don’t need special education services once they start school,” Spector said. That saves taxpayers a lot of money.

An eight-week, Florida International University summer camp for pre-kindergartners with a developmental or behavioral disorder was a life-changer for young Grady Levine and his parents.

Grady Levine, 7, does magic tricks for his sister, Annie Bea; mom, Nicole; Ham Sandwich, the dog, and dad, Jason.

Mom Nicole Levine said she “saw a flier for this program” at one of the places she had taken Grady to be tested. He qualified, but the program, run by licensed psychologists and teachers, was really expensive.

Parents pay based on income. In this case, “The Children’s Trust paid for half of the program. It was really comforting to see others with similar situations,” said Levine, whose son has ADHD and other behavior issues.

Grady attended the pre-kindergarten program (STP-PreK) for eight weeks. Once a week, the families would gather for dinner at 5 p.m., and then the parents would meet for two hours while the children did other activities.

“Honestly, the parent training is what really helps us in the long run,” Levine said. “Jason and I are pretty upbeat, but it never dawned on us” to use positive reinforcement for behavior.

“It’s been a year, and still, to this day, we use the reward system,” Levine said.

Now Grady is in first grade and doing well. Levine said he responds well to being rated on having a green, yellow or red day, “and he hasn’t had to go on medication. That’s huge for us.”

Parent training is a facet of Amigos for Kids, a Miami-based charity whose slogan is: “There’s no excuse for child abuse.”

Rosa Maria Plasencia, president and chief executive, said Amigos for Kids began as friends wanting to fight child abuse. Then, when Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, they helped foster children’s wishes come true.

“Here we are 25 years later” helping needy children affected by Hurricane Irma in South Dade, Plasencia said. They will be part of the group’s annual toy drive.

GKK00 GivingKids News rk
Teresa Cubia during an Amigos for Kids parenting session to help parents learn how to become better parents, held at Shenandoah Elementary on Thursday, October 26, 2017. Roberto Koltun

Another program funded by The Children’s Trust, Nurturing Parents, runs for 12 to 14 weeks, usually in the evening.

“These are parents who come voluntarily. There are no court-mandated cases,” Plasencia said.

Parents and children learn what is acceptable in terms of family rules. Sessions cover topics such as self-worth, empathy, discipline and understanding a child’s developmental stage. The facilitator works with the parents and, simultaneously, the staff works with the children.

“One of my favorite results is a daughter who said, ‘I’m so happy Mom doesn’t scream at me anymore,’ ” Plasencia said.

Parenting support is a crucial component of The Children’s Movement, founded by Lawrence in 2010 to advocate for Florida’s youngest. The nonprofit advocacy group focuses on children from birth to age 5.

“A child has 85 percent of brain growth by age 3,” Lawrence said. That creates the foundation on which a child can develop other skills.

“This is an effort to give every child” a good start in life, he added. “A big part is parent skill building, to help them become better parents.”

One goal is to expand Help Me Grow, a free parent-resource program begun in 2012, throughout Florida.

“It really is about changing priorities,” Lawrence said, discussing the importance of adequate healthcare, love and intellectual stimulation for young children.

“We spend more than $50,000 a year to incarcerate a juvenile. Wouldn’t it be better to spend” the money on children at an earlier age to give them a good start? Lawrence asked.

How to help

Amigos for Kids: 305-279-1155,

The Children’s Movement: 305-646-7230,

The Children’s Trust: Call 211 for information on programs.

The Children’s Trust in 2016:

▪ 43,638 children, youth, parents and caregivers used one or more ongoing service programs, including summer camps, after-school programs and parenting classes, among others.

▪ 95,206 students made 230,861 visits to Trust-funded school nurses.

▪ 28,000 infants and young children were nurtured in participating Quality Counts daycare centers.

▪ Tens of thousands of families accessed, 211 Helpline and other resources to connect with programs.