More than 300 student volunteers met Saturday morning for a day of civic engagement throughout Little Haiti.
Orientation Outreach was the last scheduled event for the students, mostly freshman from the University of Miami’s Butler Center for Service and Leadership. Every year, the Butler Center sends students throughout Miami-Dade County to neighborhoods in need.
Evan De Joya, a freshman from Chicago, said that being a student at UM, at times, means being isolated in Coral Cables.
“It’s great to see different parts of of Miami,” said De Joya, 18. “It’s good to come out and see how the Haitian community came and established their own culture here.”
Haitian culture — and its preservation in Little Haiti — was a focus for students working at three main sites in the neighborhood.
Some students picked up trash along the street; others painted oil drums to be used as trash receptacles at the Little Haiti Cultural Center; more worked on a gardening project at Villa Jardin Condominiums.
Sam Diller, executive director at the Haitian American Community Development Corp., said getting residents engaged for volunteer work in Little Haiti is difficult. Diller, who provides affordable housing at Villa Jardin through HACDC, works one-on-one with families in the community.
Diller said half of the families his group works with are headed by single parents, often balancing parenting duties with full-time work and church.
“It’s hard to get a household engaged when [parents] are working so hard to put food on the table,” Diller said.
Diller said there are people working to protect Little Haiti and its residents — even in the midst of a transformation, fueled by the downtown and Wynwood real estate boom.
Joann Milord, director of Northeast Second Avenue Partnership based in the Cultural Center, has acted as a liaison working on behalf of Haitian and Caribbean culture. Diller, through the HACDC, helped create NE2P, a pro-Little Haiti organization founded in 2008.
Milord said she hopes students can take away from the vibrant cultures found throughout the neighborhood.
“Hopefully they come back and want to experience a Haitian restaurant or hear some good Haitian music,” Milord said. “Or maybe this shows them about non-profit work and working within communities.”
Miranda Goot, a senior who looks to work on sustainability projects after graduation, said that this year the Orientation Outreach program restructured its program to focus on one neighborhood, rather than small groups to different locations. This allowed students to focus on the history and culture more intimately.
“There’s so much life in this community and you should want to explore it,” Goot said. “Haitian food apparently is amazing and I haven’t tried enough of it. I need to eat in this area.”