Community Voices

Youngsters taught to find their voice in debate and everyday conversation

Graduates of the weeklong Miami Urban Debate League Camp held at the University of Miami celebrate their new debate, leadership and critical thinking skills.
Graduates of the weeklong Miami Urban Debate League Camp held at the University of Miami celebrate their new debate, leadership and critical thinking skills. Photo provided by Miami Urban Debate League

Many excited students are now heading back to school after spending summer at various camps to learn new skills and refine other talents.

Two special programs taught young people how to be better in life in different ways, and both made a huge difference.

Learning to lead through debate

With its mission to “cultivate leadership and critical thinking skills in Miami’s urban public school students,” the Miami-Dade Urban Debate League’s free summer program taught several dozen students about teamwork, cooperative learning, academic excellence, critical reflection and individual student growth.

Available to middle- and high-school students, the camp’s goal is to “empower the participants to become confident, successful citizens, who are advocates for themselves and their community and who successfully graduate from high school, pursue college degrees and become active leaders in their community.”

University of Miami School of Communications Professor David Steinberg directs the UM Debate Department and was main instructor for the camp held at UM. He said in an email that “debate produces self-confidence, critical thinking, reading, writing and speaking competencies, organization and time management, and perhaps most important of all, listening skills.”

“Students find their voices by participating in Miami-Dade Urban Debate League,” he said. “For many outside of Debate League no one takes time and care to listen to them. Here they have an audience who cares and respects what they have to say. That is absolutely empowering.”

Cliff Schulman, board chairman of the Miami Urban Debate League and a partner at Weiss Serota, agreed. “Competitive debate gave me the professional life I have enjoyed as an attorney for the past 45 years,” Schulman said. “We want to give these disadvantaged kids that same kind of chance.”

“Our students find out that they can settle their differences with words, and not with violence,” he said in email. “One young debater said to me: ‘No one has ever told me that I could be good at something.’ But through the Urban Debate League he discovered if he applied himself, he not only could be good, he could be great.”

Schulman volunteers countless hours as the Debate League’s program director.

A number of prominent speakers also visited the full-day camp, held Aug. 7-11, to educate and inspire the students. Among these were former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Wifredo A. “Willy” Ferrer (now leader of Holland & Knight’s Global Compliance and Investigations team) and former state lawmaker and Miami-Dade County School Board Member Wilbert “Tee” Holloway.

Primarily from minority families, more than 80 percent of students enrolled in the camp and in the group’s school-year program successfully graduate from high school, with many going on to college. To learn more, visit

Finding a brave voice

The ability to debate does not come naturally, but talking to others should.

Most of us are not aware of the agony that children diagnosed with Selective Mutism suffer in a social environment. SM is an anxiety-based disorder in which a child is comfortable talking at home with immediate family members, but once they are in an environment like a birthday party, playground, and even school, they cannot talk. This leads to a lonely life of decreased academic achievement and increased isolation and withdrawal.

Twenty-four children with SM from all over the country visited Miami for a special summer program to help them learn how to find their brave voice.

The Brave Bunch Camp at the Florida International University Center for Children and Families is one of only seven programs in the country and the only one in the Southeastern United States to offer the intensive format of behavioral therapy needed to help children with SM.

The camp, held every summer since 2013, simulates a classroom setting and provides guided opportunities for the children to interact with new people in group projects, arts, sports and socializing games that promote spontaneous speech or “brave talking.”

The ultimate test of bravery came on the last day of camp when organizers took the children to a mall to practice using their brave voices in the community and real life situations. They asked about ice cream flavors and chocolate and ordered lunch. They were given praise, checks and gold coins for bravery.

Throughout the week, the children also wore recording devices called the Language Environment Analysis System (LENA), which “is part of a research study that aims to examine the language environment of a child with SM.”

“With the LENA device, our hope is to examine the specifics of language and social interaction,” said Jami Furr in email. Furr is director of the Selective Mutism Program and clinical director at the Mental Health Interventions and Technology (MINT) Program at the Center for Children and Families at FIU. “Our team hopes to explore with the audience what a day in the life of a child with SM “sounds” like before and after treatment.”

Prevalence of SM is found in less than 1 percent of the population, but it is two to three times more likely to affect bilingual children. The camp has hosted children from China, Australia and many countries in South America.

One child, 5-year-old Adelyn, and her family traveled from South Carolina to attend. Adelyn’s parents created a T-shirt collection to raise funds for SM, and they are donating 20 percent of the proceeds to the Brave Bunch camp as a way to give back.

“I just wanted to give you a quick update,” her mother wrote to the camp after returning home. “Adelyn is doing so amazingly. School starts on Friday and she is already speaking full voice to both her teachers, the nurse and the school secretary! She has been ordering her own food, asking questions. ... I’m so excited.” Learn more at

Ron Magill’s African animals

Zoo Miami’s Ron Magill will be guest speaker at the Brandeis Fall Showcase, an annual event that raises funds to support the libraries at Brandeis University.

Magill will share his fun stories and photos from his most recent adventure to Africa. He has worked in wildlife for more than 30 years and has “hands-on” experience with a large variety of animals. And as Zoo Miami’s goodwill ambassador, he has made frequent television appearances on “Today” and “Good Morning America” and in documentaries.

Everyone is invited to attend, starting with a reception at 10:15 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 7, at Temple Judea, 5500 Granada Blvd., Coral Gables The program includes a luncheon catered by Michael’s Catering. Cost is $40. Contact Barbara Bulbin for information and registration at 305-274-0206.

If you have news for this column, please send it to Christina Mayo at