CBF field personnel share Christ’s great love through literacy ministry in South Florida
By Blake Tommey
Brian was 10 years old when he first enrolled at Touching Miami with Love, an organization sharing Christ’s great love through literacy and educational ministries.
Yet, Brian couldn’t read. Although he had struggled with dyslexia for most of his life, his teachers never identified his need for special training. At the time, Brian’s mother was simultaneously raising multiple children and struggling to find employment. So he and his family would often sell candy bars in their neighborhood just to maintain enough money to live. His peers frequently enjoyed teasing and bullying him because of his height and his thick Haitian accent. Needless to say, most days Brian did not have enormous cause for celebration.
But one quiet afternoon in Overtown, the doors of Touching Miami with Love suddenly burst open as a young man came crashing in, bounding through the hallways. Between the booming thuds of his shoes on the building floor, he was distributing spontaneous hugs to anyone he could get his hands on. It was Brian, and still clutched in his hand was the first book he had ever read.
As excitedly as he entered that day, Brian grabbed three more books from TML’s lending library and took his beaming smile home as programming ended.
“When I mastered that book I was so happy and proud of myself, and now I can read anything I want,” Brian said. “Education is important. I want to work at a great job where I can one day feed my kids and help my family. I want to follow God and make my neighborhood better.”
It is because of students like Brian, TML directors and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel Angel and Jason Pittman and Wanda Ashworth Valencia said, that they are living out their callings in the Overtown and West Homestead neighborhoods of Miami to love God, teach neighbor and be transformed. Through support from the CBF Offering for Global Missions, TML is forming together with CBF, CBF of Florida and the residents of Overtown and West Homestead to renew God’s world through literacy training in two of the most neglected communities in the United States.
Overtown, referred to as “Colored Town” during the Jim Crow era, is located on the northwest end of downtown Miami and has an average per capita income of $13,000, which is 36 percent less than the Miami average and 50 percent less than the Florida average. The overall crime rate in Overtown is 155 percent higher than the national average, and on any given day you have a 1 in 13 chance of becoming a victim
of a crime.
West Homestead, formerly Open House Ministries and now TML’s West Homestead site, began ministry in response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992, is located 35 miles southwest of Miami and is classified as safer than only four percent of United States cities. In West Homestead, 43 percent of children are living below the poverty line and 60 percent of young people report that they are living in a household where someone is struggling with addiction.
In these communities that have been continually bypassed by development and economic opportunity, Jason Pittman said, education and literacy training are the most crucial sources of empowerment for people. Yet, while it would be easy to see only need in Overtown and West Homestead, he added, TML’s literacy ministry is less about saving and more about unlocking the enormous gifts and strengths that already exist in these communities.
“We are working from an asset-based approach,” Jason explained.
“That means we start with the assets of the community, be that people, organizations or physical assets. It also means that we don’t start with what we think are the needs. We go to our neighbors and form a relationship in which we meet their felt needs. Our primary mission is really to empower, enrich and provide the resources for our community to reach their potential, to become their best selves with the right education and opportunities.”
Through their relationships with the West Homestead and Overtown communities, TML is developing educational literacy in elementary and high school students through their Tomorrow’s Leaders Children’s Program and their Today’s Leaders Youth Development Program in Overtown and Open House Youth Program in West Homestead. Tomorrow’s Leaders focuses on students in kindergarten through eighth grade with after-school curriculum, which includes tutoring, homework help, literacy class, fitness, social skills development and a healthy snack, as more than 97 percent of their students qualify for free and reduced meals. In a specialized effort, Tomorrow’s Leaders also offers daily enrichment in science, technology, engineering and math.
TML’s youth programs focus on high school students with programming on Monday, Wednesday and Thursdays. Gathering for a full sit-down dinner, instructors, volunteers also students engage in a variety of activities and classes to increase academic skills, engage in creative arts, worship and learn biblical truths and build social skills, with mentorship and case management to help build resilience to overcome a high rate of family dysfunction.
Trina Harris serves as the site director for TML in Overtown, the neighborhood in which she was born and raised. She shared that she faced the same challenges that students and families face today. Furthermore, the cause of those challenges, she added, is the same story as always — a lack of education, a lack of knowledge and a lack of job training. For TML, literacy is not simply the ability to read, but rather the complete competence and educational empowerment needed to emerge from poverty and systemic injustice.
“Our children are faced with so much, whether it’s poverty, whether it’s single households, whether it’s parents that are incarcerated, whether it’s just a financial struggle, a struggle simply to have a meal or to maintain a healthy mindset,” Harris said.
“Education is the way to bridge the gap between living in poverty and climbing out. Through education, we’re finding a way to strengthen our community, to get them trained, to be able to obtain jobs that can pay a decent salary so they can provide for their families and still be a part of the community.”
For an increasing number of Overtown and West Homestead residents, climbing out of poverty is not at all synonymous with climbing out of their neighborhood. In fact, according to Krissy Crumiel, a kindergarten and first-grade instructor at TML, the real joy comes from cycling back to your community and teaching your neighbors everything you were taught as a student. Crumiel first came to TML as a seventh-grader and had an amazing experience learning in their children’s and youth programs, having mentors and serving as a junior intern during high school.
But the pivotal moment came when Crumiel received her acceptance letter to college. Though she was unsure about going off to school and affording the college experience, the TML staff held a fundraiser for her, took her shopping for dorm materials and even drove her to school. Now that Crumiel has returned as an instructor, she said she finally sees the big picture and how much education can transform people.
“TML was probably the sole reason I was able to go to college,” Crumiel said.
“When I was in TML’s program, I was mentored and led a certain way and now I’m in a position where I’m able to mentor and lead. I hope every day that these kids follow that path, and it doesn’t have to be my exact path. I would love to see my students at their college graduations, getting their diplomas. I’m going to be right there when they get off stage, hugging them, because education is my passion.”
“The CBF Offering for Global Missions provides Krissy, Trina, Brian and every
other TML partner in Overtown and West Homestead the opportunity to live out their passion through education,” Angel Pittman said. As TML has grown its programming at the Overtown and West Homestead sites in the number of students served and depth of programming offered, they depend not only on local partners but on Cooperative Baptists all across the country to form together with them in their mission to love God, teach neighbor and be transformed.
“Partnering with TML means offering education that transforms,” Angel said.
“God is already at work in the lives of our children, our youth and their parents. And it is our opportunity to join with them to empower them with the great message of hope, and to provide hands-on tools to help them be all that God has called them to be. When a child can read on grade-level, when a student understands math for the first time, it opens a world of opportunity to them. It literally transforms their lives.”
To learn more about how you and your church can participate in the CBF Offering for Global Missions and partner to support work like that of TML, visit http://www.cbf.net/OGM.