The idea was born of friendship— and tragedy. Confronted with the horrific torture and beating death of a little boy known as Baby Lollipops, a group of young Cuban-Americans discussed how best to help abused kids in Miami.
The four Miamians came up with an idea: form an auxiliary unit of Children’s Home Society to help raise awareness of the problem. Today, 25 years later, Amigos for Kids has helped thousands of children, educated countless parents, sponsored yearly public campaigns and reached north to help students in two Broward schools.
Yet, despite the variety of programming and quality of outreach— it was a 2015 Children’s Trust Program of the Year recipient — Amigos seems to be best known for a summer party. Its annual fundraiser, Miami Celebrity Domino Night in June, attracts celebrities of all ages and a veritable who’s who of Miami’s young Hispanic elite.
“One of our biggest challenges,” said Amigos CEO and President Rosa Maria Plasencia, “is letting people know that we are not just about that one party. We’re an organization that works every day for children to have a good childhood in a violence-free home. It’s not just about a domino night and it’s not just about a toy drive. It’s really about the children.”
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It’s always been about the children and about the desire to focus community attention on the need to prevent child abuse by educating and helping families. But back in 1991, when the organization was just getting started, the young founders had little experience and virtually no money to pursue their mission. One of them, Jorge A. Plasencia — now CEO of República, a nationally recognized advertising and communications company — was 17, a high school junior who would end up serving as the nonprofit’s chairman for more than a decade.
During the group’s first year, it helped 55 kids in foster care, sponsoring a toy drive after Hurricane Andrew had decimated Miami-Dade. The wish-specific drive — children ask and are granted two requests— now serves 1,500 kids.
“The drive is the same, but what the kids want now has changed,” Rosa Plasencia said with a chuckle. “All of them want tablets these days.”
Over the past quarter-century, as Miami has grown and become more diverse, the all-volunteer Amigos has branched out from its first toy drive. In 1994, in an effort to reach more people with information on preventing child abuse, Amigo began hosting fairs around South Florida. It launched a back-to-school drive to provide book bags and school supplies to students. Then in 2004, it kicked off what would become an annual Blue Ribbon Campaign for April’s Child Abuse Prevention Month (“There is no excuse for child abuse”) and opened an after-school program at Jose Marti Park in conjuction with the City of Miami Parks and Recreation Department. By 2008 it had started a parenting program for parents in Little Havana to promote positive parenting and provide service options for families.
In the years since, Amigos has focused on expanding its outreach to more families. The after-school program, for example, began with 60 kids and now serves more than 100. Plasencia is hoping to include middle-schoolers soon. “At that age, they really need a place to go,” she said.
The Amigos Strengthens Families & Communities Program now also has a “Nurturing Families” initiative that aims to strenghten the parent-child bond through educational sessions. Even participation in its Domino Night has more than doubled.
Plasencia, a cousin of co-founder Jorge Plasencia, began working with Amigos as a volunteer, serving on the board before being tapped to run the organization. Her current board includes some community heavy-hitters, many recruited by Jorge Plasencia: Pedro Capo (of El Dorado furniture stores), vice-chairman Nicole Valls (of the restaurant company Valls Group), WTVJ anchor Jackie Nespral, Univision TV anchor Pamela Silva Conde, Related Group President of International and Strategic Projects Lissette Calderon, TV celebrity chef Ingrid Hoffmann, marketing executive Roxana Fernandez and other well-known Miami professionals.
Attorney Victoria San Pedro, 27, is the youngest member of the board. Her mother, the late Ofelia San Pedro, served on the board for many years, and San Pedro and her brother grew up volunteering for Amigos events. Her favorites are the after-school program at Jose Marti Park (her mom was a former deputy schools superintendent who helped put it together) and the toy drive.
“These children ask for socks, for shoes, for things that we take for granted,” San Pedro sasid. “I remember one child asking for a bed so his mom wouldn’t have to sleep on the floor anymore. It makes me appreciate every little thing I have, from the shoes I’m wearing now to the fact that I can drive into work today.”
Like its board, Amigo’s corporate sponsors are equally influential, from Voya to TotalBank to Ford Motor Company, UPS, Greenberg Traurig and cruise lines Carnival and Royal Caribbean.
Citing the “unacceptable statistic” that between four and five children die of abuse or neglect every day, Plasencia says the organization’s mission is far from done.
“Remember the outrage over Cecil the lion [mistakenly shot by an American hunter] last year?” she asks. “Well, why don’t more people show that kind of outrage over the issue of child abuse and neglect? We have to feel that outrage. We have to be so angry that we say, ‘I want to do something about this and I want to do it now.’ ”
If You Go
Amigos for Kids annual Blue Ribbon Awareness Campaign commemorating April’s National Child Abuse Prevention Month
April 18: Amigos For Kids and Miami-Dade County Public Schools Division of Student Services host the 2016 Blue Ribbon Awareness Event at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium. School board members and elected city and county officials will be on hand for drama and dance routines, bands, and other activities. Prevention poster contest finalists will be announced, and artwork will be displayed on www.amigosforkids.org
April 18 and 19: At sunset, Miami-Dade College will illuminate in blue its National Historic Landmark Freedom Tower in downtown Miami in support of Amigos For Kids mission to prevent child abuse
April 19: Amigos For Kids will host the 2016 “There’s NO Excuse for Child Abuse!” Blue Ribbon Awareness Walk and Candlelight Vigil at Jose Marti Park