Miami Beach

Ambassadors bring answers and a quick smile at Urban Beach Week

The images are swirling nonstop on this Memorial Day weekend: hip-hop fans and day-trippers partying down Ocean Drive, decked out cars cruising up Lincoln Road, a crush of tourists filling up bars and clubs on Collins Avenue.

Now, a less rambunctious group is taking in the scene. They can easily be distinguished from the crowd of frolicking partygoers. They walk in groups of 10. They wear black Tees, some hold up small signs saying “ask me” and they have a purpose to their stride.

These are Goodwill Ambassadors, Miami-Dade employees who have given up their weekend to hang out on South Beach to act as a buffer among residents, beach-goers, and the police during one of South Florida’s biggest party weekends, Urban Beach Week.

At the start of the weekend, ambassadors and others, including police officers, share a buffet meal of roast beef, potato wedges, salad and brownies at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Then, they board a county school bus to the roll-call site at 10th street and Ocean Drive, where Ed Harris, director of the ambassadors program, gives an impassioned speech, referring to last year’s police shooting that left one person dead and four injured. He encourages ambassadors to give the weekend their best.

“There has been a lot of controversy and a lot of rumors,” he says. “That’s the past. We can learn from it.”

The Goodwill Ambassadors program, part of Miami Dade’s Community Advocacy Office of Miami-Dade, started 11 years ago when Miami-Dade County recruited Harris to help with crowd management - something Miami Beach was lacking. Harris previously worked for the Department of Justice, coordinating large-scale crowd events across the country.

On this weekend, nearly 200 ambassadors will be out, giving tips and assistance. The group’s main job is to handle information, so that police can concentrate on bigger issues.

“If someone’s walking down a street with an open container,” Harris says, “we tell them, before they get arrested, that it’s not a good idea.”

Teams of 10 people work eight-hour shifts walk up and down Ocean Drive, past life-sized cut-outs of Miami Heat basketball stars Dwayne Wade and Udonis Haslem. The cut-outs, there for photo ops, sport the slogan, “Respect the Scene” – reminding beachgoers to behave.

“We’re about to go out into the fire, but tonight is our night,’’ Harris says.

After last year’s police-involved shooting, which resulted in widespread criticism of the police and city officials, and brought much, unwanted notoriety to Miami Beach, the city is more than prepared this year.

The ACLU and Justice Department and others are out on the streets of Miami Beach, watching party-goers and police, to make sure everything goes according to the law.

But the Ambassadors, in their black T-shirts with the pink “Respect the Scene’’ slogan, will be the ones with a quick answer and an even quicker smile for visitors.

“You guys are our eyes and ears,” said Mildred I. Duprey de Robles, a conciliation specialist with the Department of Justice.

County employees who help out get one hour administrative leave for each hour they work Memorial Day Weekend. Those who met up at the Miami Beach Convention Center Friday evening say they come out for the fun.

“We’re doing it on our day off,” said Myriam Rhodes, who works in the county’s Risk Management Department. “I get a kick out of it.”

Robert Asherof Sr., the star of the Reality TV show, South Beach Tow, also volunteers.

Providing directions and assistance during the weekend are rewarding and give him a chance to connect with people from all over, he said.

“If a situation is hostile, I get people calm by signing autographs,” Asherof Sr. said.