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Miami-Dade Parks Fit2Lead Changing The Lives Of At-Risk Teens

(Photo credit: Parks Foundation of Miami-Dade)

“We’re dropping like flies.”

That’s the way 15-year old JK (name is being withheld) describes what is happening to his friends and classmates who are being shot and killed by other teens.

Since 2006, 316 children and teens have been killed by gunfire; more than two thirds were between 17 and 19 years old. It is a chronic problem that the Miami-Dade Parks Department’s Fit2Lead initiative hopes to change.

The Fit2Lead program gives pre-teens and teens the chance to learn life skills, the opportunity to have positive experiences in a safe environment and a chance at having a real future. It’s one of Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez’ priorities and is supported by his office through a $3 million grant.

The two-prong Fit2Lead initiative includes the Youth Enrichment and Sports (Y.E.S.) program for 12-14 year olds, and the Park Internship Program (P.I.P) for 15-17 year olds. Both provide intentional and explicit opportunities for at-risk youth and a place where they can practice their social and emotional skills through recreational activities and workshops.

Caitlin Alfonso, who holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a master’s degree in social work, is the Fit2Lead program coordinator.

“These kids are really impacted by violence,” she shared. “I’m already seeing positive changes in behaviors through their involvement in the program. Perhaps in the early weeks they didn’t take their roles seriously, but as soon as they received their first paychecks they realized the importance of the program and their role in it.”

For some teens, earning that first paycheck validated them as being more than a target. For others, those earnings helped pay household expenses. JK, used some of his money to celebrate his mom on Mother’s Day. “I also want to save for a trip to Orlando, too,” he declared.

Fit2Lead is a collaboration between Miami-Dade Parks, the Department of Juvenile Services and local universities. Juvenile Services Division Director of Operations Cathy Burgos believes that Fit2Lead is important in reaching and helping these kids break the cycle of violence.

“Our hope is that it inspires them to seek out other options when making decisions. Through the program they are being exposed to something different and learning from productive adults who are instilling in them that they have something to lose.”

Interns who have three strikes against them are removed from the program.

Teens are referred to the program through Juvenile Services, school counselors or even their peers. All applicants must pass a background check and drug test. Right now, the program is offered in Gwen Cherry and Goulds Parks and is at capacity.

“What’s unique about this program is that we give 15 year olds a job that pays, but also enrichment classes that give them life skills that they may not get at home,” Alonso said. “The teens are assigned to shadow a park’s staff member, with whom they work and learn. The enrichment time is when they come together as a group in a classroom setting.”

Recreation Leader Wayne Silvestro, who works with the 12-14 year olds in the Y.E.S. program, recognizes that just giving the kids a place where they are safe and protected is a big step.

“If the kid is in our parks, he/she is off the streets,” Silvestro shared. “Being in the program teaches them alternatives to fighting.” The curriculum Silvestro follows includes team building activities, problem solving opportunities and the time to express themselves through journaling. “These younger kids may not be out there involved in the violence, but they have been affected by it, because they know someone who has been. This program allows them to be kids and gives them a time to just enjoy themselves.”

Both programs follow the school year calendar, but interns are able to work at the summer camp until the new school year starts.

Last week, teens in the P.I.P program celebrated the program’s first birthday. It was a chance for them to reflect on who they were when they began the program and who they are now as a result of it. Sixteen year old Kavahree Jones has found that the enrichment portion of the program has had the greatest impact on him.

“For me, the best part of the program is when we do enrichment. I am learning real life skills like resume writing and how to interview which I will use in my future.”

“I think that every kid deserves a chance, Alfonso shared. “Fit2Lead is going to be their chance, we want to encourage them to dream,” she said.”

For JK who is not only surviving, but thriving his dream is to play high school football, then college and maybe even work for the County someday. He is certainly on his way – Fit2Lead is going to make sure of it!

Above content provided by Parks Foundation of Miami-Dade

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