UrbanPromise celebrates new headquarters in Little Havana

Kristy Nuñez and Ana Ojeda know that to the children and teens who are part of their nonprofit youth program UrbanPromise Miami, the concept of family is vital.

“They stand up for each other like brothers and sisters,” Nuñez said.

Now, for the first time since its inception in 2010, that family has a home.

UrbanPromise Miami, which offers free faith-based summer camps and after-school programs to local underprivileged youth, celebrated the grand opening last Thursday of its first permanent facility in Little Havana.

For founders Nuñez and Ojeda, the site means a consistent home base. After renting various spaces over the last three years, they see this yellow building on the corner of First and Seventh as a true blessing.

“This has been our dream since day one,” Nuñez said. “We never thought we would have this so soon. It’s overwhelming.”

Housed on the second floor, which previously was the warehouse for the diving adventure shop below, UrbanPromise Miami’s new headquarters is complete with computer lab, activity room and brightly painted, child-friendly walls.

Nuñez and Ojeda aren’t the only ones who are excited over the change. Jefry Padilla, 15, has been part of the program since it began. Padilla is now a street leader, one of many who serve as role models and mentors to the younger children.

“Finally,” Padilla said. “Finally we have a home.”

The program serves kids ages 5 to 18 with after-school activities (meant to occupy kids during the peak juvenile crime hours of 3 to 6 p.m.), summer Camp Courage (Changing Others Using Respect And God’s Embrace), counseling and the StreetLeader and Role Model programs to help older children develop leadership skills.

It is modeled after the original UrbanPromise created by Bruce Main in 1988 in Camden, N.J., to foster skills necessary for academic achievement, life management, spiritual growth and leadership in a city known for its violence and crime.

Main spoke at Thursday’s celebration, reflecting on the change he has seen in the kids who participate.

“We ask for greatness out of these kids because many of them don’t see it for themselves,” he told the crowd.

Nuñez and Ojeda stumbled upon Main’s UrbanPromise by chance, but they already knew they wanted to create a program for inner-city youth.

Born and raised in Miami and best friends since middle school, both had careers that led to an elevated awareness of the issues these kids were facing — Nuñez as prosecutor for the state of Florida and Ojeda as a clinical psychologist.

“I looked into the box of kids, all in orange, some facing life for felonies,” Nuñez said. “I didn’t even realize I had tears in my eyes.”

Fueled by separate experiences that led them to the same conclusion, Nuñez and Ojeda decided they wanted to develop a community program that would reach children early on to reduce crime and increase graduation rates.

“There was a pattern — crime was happening because they didn’t have supervision and support,” Ojeda said. “Many of these kids come from broken homes.”

When they discovered that a program already existed that aligned with their goals, they wrote Main an email, spent a week in Camden, raised $60,000 and launched their first summer camp.

Many of the children have been with them since the beginning, coming up through the camps, becoming street leaders and even returning to work as staff members.

Derrick Sondrini, 20, teaches classes and helps run the after school program as an intern. He grew up going to UrbanPromise Camden and knows first-hand the effect it can have.

“I’m here because I see the change,” he said. “I mean, it changed me.”

Kyle Bahm, the program coordinator, watches people like Sondrini pass that change on to others.

“There was this kid who was really tough and angry, he always said he hated this place,” Bahm said. “Derrick took him on, gave him responsibility, and as soon as he was given that power he started to change. His mom said he was like a different kid.”

Nuñez and Ojeda seem to have no intention of settling. Future goals include another site in Little Havana specifically for middle-schoolers and expanding to other communities.

“It’s 110 percent dedication,” Ojeda said.

For two people with full-time jobs, that kind of commitment is no small feat. But they have help. Nuñez and Ojeda said they often wake up to texts with words of encouragement from the children.

“They do everything in their power to make sure we keep going,” Nuñez said. “They’ve been just as much a part of it as we have. They sweat for it just as much as we do.”