Helping People

These kids brighten our lives

Pineapple Express owner Katherine Hernandez, center, offers a healthy sample of conch salad at the Overtown Youth Center which held its first free Enrichment Festival with live music, food, free haircuts, and other fun activities due to the teacher workday for Miami Dade County Public Schools on Monday, January 23, 2017.
Pineapple Express owner Katherine Hernandez, center, offers a healthy sample of conch salad at the Overtown Youth Center which held its first free Enrichment Festival with live music, food, free haircuts, and other fun activities due to the teacher workday for Miami Dade County Public Schools on Monday, January 23, 2017.

Our future is our youth.

Sometimes we forget that. Sometimes we forget about the children, teens, and those in-between who need extra help and hope. The individuals and volunteers in these four groups have missions.

They persevere every day, and they encourage others to do the same. They work hard and they take care to make a difference. And we are all better because of them.

Here are four groups that illustrate this greatly:

The Emily Project

Volunteering is never easy. Just ask Florida International University student Juan Gutierrez, who was in a car accident on his way to Andover Middle School in Miami Gardens recently to play his part in The Emily Project.

He was already dressed in 19th century costume, as Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin. The car was totaled and Gutierrez was banged up and his hand was hurt. But the show to inspire young people to create poetry went on the following week.

The Emily Project is the latest for What if Works, Inc., a group that offers theater, film and music majors a way to transition from college to the professional world.

Phillip Church, FIU associate professor and theater and artistic director of What if Works, is the guiding force. He has been at FIU for 38 years and he started What if Works in 2011 to bring awareness of community issues to his university students and area schoolchildren.

“The original purpose came out of a response to the climate of the nation,” Church said of The Emily Project. “It really disturbed me to see so much division, especially for the students in middle schools because those are the kids who can fall through the cracks.”

He said he was inspired by the poet Emily Dickinson who was “never divisive,” he said. “She never used anger. What a great example, I thought. What if these young students in middle schools could realize they don’t have to use anger or be defensive about their lot in life,” Church said.

The project is putting his students to work in real-world settings.

When “Emily and Austin” go into a classroom, Church said, they start by standing the students in a circle for drumming exercises that teach about meter and beats. Then they work on six-word poems based on photos and visualizing the color red. They progress to writing 12-word poems about personal experiences, and finally they write a 14-line poem, the length of a sonnet, about “Trust,” “Truth,” or “Friendship.”

The students also discuss these in small breakout groups. “We end it with 10 minutes of absolute silence,” which Church said is exhilarating. “It all circles back to our better nature.”

The group is also presenting a play called “The Belle of Amherst” at four locations for the community and teachers who bring their students.

“Emily takes into each school her ‘Black Cake’ which she was notorious for regularly baking at home. It begins the play and so we thought it a good idea to share with the students,” Church said. “The cake gets cut up between the students at the end of the session. Definitely a part of the presentation that is a real hit!”

The school tours and community poetry workshops, and the production of “The Belle of Amherst,” are presented free. Also, the Dickinson poetry platforms will be performed at the Miami-Dade Main Public Library, Books & Books and the Pinecrest Branch Library.

“To us, it’s about going into small communities and knowing what we do can make a difference,” Church said.

For The Emily Project details and where to see “The Belle of Amherst,” call What if Works at 305-271-1073, or visit

Pain 2 Purpose

Believing yourself “empowered” is not always easy. It’s particularly difficult for those who have been bullied, and physically and emotionally abused.

Pain 2 Purpose, Inc., seeks to find those who need help. The group held its 2018 Teen Empowerment Summit last month, and the founder, Shanda Roberts, an abuse victim herself, said the free event was well attended.

“About 80 kids participated in sessions that discussed suicide, depression, self esteem, bullying and teen dating violence, and financial literacy and entrepreneurship. The teens were very engaging. They asked questions and gave each other advice,” Roberts said.

At the “I My Selfie” teen summit she also reached out to parents on how to communicate with their kids regarding issues they may be dealing with.

Roberts established the group in 2015 to help domestic violence victims and those who suffered dating abuse. For the summit she branched out to include speakers on a great deal more. “As a survivor of domestic violence, my abuse began as a teenager and I personally dealt with these very same issues — suicide, depression, bullying, and low self-esteem,” she said.

Roberts wants to be able to go into schools, churches and “all over, year round, to be able to keep the conversation going with teens about teen dating violence, healthy relationships, and red flags.”

“Nearly 1.5 million high school students nationwide experience physical abuse from a dating partner in a single year. This is something that needs to be talked about all the time, not just in ‘awareness’ months,” she said.

“For adult victims, I want to eventually have a ‘safe space’ for victims fleeing their abuser and also have a ‘now what’ plan. Sheltering them temporarily won’t help them if we can’t give them resources to basically start their lives over,” Roberts said.

She relates this to her own experience.

“I stayed with my abuser for a while and kept going back because he took care of me financially. Once I left, and I had a job, a car, and my own place taking care of myself, I realized that I could do it on my own and that I didn’t need him.”

Since it was established, Pain 2 Purpose has also given out over 300 new and slightly used purses, stuffed with hygiene products, to domestic violence shelters from Florida City to Broward County. Roberts has been on numerous panels and recently she was invited to speak to law students at Florida International University about how to work with abuse victims.

“I told them that they need to be very empathetic in their careers when they have women who come to see them to get help,” Roberts said. “I have shared my story of abuse and survival in the hopes of saving someone else from what I went through or helping someone get out of their situation.”

To get help, or learn how to contribute, visit

Heroes Hangout

For Silvia Dominguez Vanni, her “inspiration and reason for everything” is her baby Salvatore.

Sal was diagnosed with stage IV neuroblastoma cancer when he was just 4. He died in 2011, a month shy of his 8th birthday, after undergoing 55 cycles of chemotherapy, 50 rounds of radiation, 12 surgeries, over 200 blood and platelet transfusions, and more scans and hospitalizations than anyone should have to go through.

“Sal was treated in seven different hospitals across five different states,” his mother said. “He was a trailblazer as the first child on many Phase I experimental trials across the country leading the way for potential new treatments for kids like him.”

She and her husband, Steven, started Mystic Force Foundation in 2008 when their son was given a 20 percent chance to live five more years. Steven Vanni is a University of Miami neurological surgeon.

“We decided at that moment that we would do everything we could to save his life and all the other children suffering as he was,” Silvia Vanni said.

On Sept. 8, in North Miami Beach, they opened Heroes Hangout. It is a place where kids with cancer can be a little bit like other kids. Because the children spend so much time getting treatments, and in the hospital, they cannot risk going into germ-filled toy stores and playgrounds.

“The Heroes Hangout provides a place where our Heroes can come hang out, play video games, do crafts, ‘shop’ for toys (at no cost!), attend special events and just have fun like all kids should,” she said. “The Heroes Hangout is not only for our sweetest children but for the parents as well. To see your child happy, to bring them joy and laughter while they are going through such a traumatic and painful experience, is a feeling that is indescribable unless you have lived through it.”

Mystic Force Foundation also organizes monthly in-patient parties where volunteers bring hundreds of toys, do special crafts, play music, and dance. Companies or individuals donate dinner for the evening, Silvia Vanni said.

“The financial burden of a parent with a child battling cancer is most often times overwhelming -- to the point where many lose their jobs, their insurance and many times must file for bankruptcy. Although there is no greater joy to these parents than to see their child with a smile on their face, the simple task of buying a toy is often a luxury that many cannot afford,” she said.

Dante Law Firm donated the space, and the project is 100 percent community-supported, Silvia Vanni said. “Heroes Hangout, is something so very special, something I have wanted to make a reality for so long. Thanks to so many caring individuals in our communities, it is now a reality.”


The Overtown Youth Center

Jobs are not easy to find, especially if you are young and inexperienced. The organizers and volunteers at The Overtown Youth Center know this well. But they are finding the funds and bringing in the experts for young people, ages 16 and up, who are entering the workforce.

“The Overtown Youth Center is changing the lives of youth by embracing each of them as our very own,” said Executive Director Tina Brown. “OYC is not only a safe haven for young people but it is home to both youth and families. In a non-cliché’-ish way, OYC is a family that takes a serious approach to ensure that our kids are educated, protected, respected, and prepared to lead a productive life.”

“Because of these commitments, 100 percent of students graduate high school annually, and an average of 80 percent of them pursue higher learning opportunities. Because of these commitments, OYC alumni are graduating from colleges and universities. Because of these commitments, OYC alumni are coming back to work in the community that they grew up in and are leading the way.”

The organization is in a partnership with the Mourning Family Foundation, and together the groups have embarked on a $15 million effort to “house the growing need for life-changing support and services for youth and families in Overtown and surrounding neighborhoods.”

The City of Miami recently contributed $1 million to support a capital campaign to renovate OYC facilities, expand services, and increase capacity for service to 5,500 youth and families throughout Miami-Dade County over the next five years.

Nearly 100 teens and young adults from Miami youth-based organizations met with vocational experts and explored career path options at the Sept 25 vocational conference hosted by OYV. Representatives from local technical colleges, vocational training academies, police and fire departments, and numerous other career option groups were in attendance.

Another recent highlight was the ribbon-cutting Oct. 18 for the addition of the Stroock Technology Lab at Overtown Youth Center. The lab will support more than 500 youth and their families, and will address the “digital divide” between Overtown residents and residents living in more prominent communities.

“OYC has been able to impact the lives of young people growing up in under-resourced communities because of our commitment to remain a constant in the lives of youth until they are 25 years of age, because of our commitment to encourage young people through some of their greatest challenges, because of our commitment to remain loyal, because of our commitment to strengthen families, and because of our commitment to those who invest in our work so that we can make the difference,” Brown said.