University leaders work to improve local spaces for children

As part of Leadership Miami, two staff members in the University of Miami Office of the President—Viena Perez and Milenis Gonzalez—organized service projects to benefit the Linda Ray Intervention Center and Amigos for Kids.

A room often used for tutoring, but with outdated equipment and a lack of space was transformed into a welcoming literacy classroom for students to get reading assistance, or find a great book at Jose Marti Park in downtown Miami. And local babies and toddlers born with developmental delays now have cleaner, safer play spaces with new tricycles and cars to help them grow physically and socially at the University of Miami Linda Ray Intervention Center (LRIC).

Both of these improved spaces are the result of the efforts and fundraising from two Leadership Miami teams that were joined by a pair of top University leaders. Viena Perez, who serves as executive director for external affairs and strategic initiatives in the Office of the President, and Milenis Gonzalez, who is the director of presidential events and engagement, are both graduating from an accelerated six-month Leadership Miami program on June 15 that is organized each year by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. 

The program aims to introduce the next generation of Miami leaders to the vital issues of their community and prepare them to meet future challenges. And while all participants take classes and earn a credential in leadership through the program, much of their time is devoted to a community service project, where they are placed in a team with other professionals. Each team is matched with a local nonprofit that has a specified need.

“Viena and Milenis are rising stars who understand the vital role that our university plays in the South Florida community. Both Viena and Milenis understand that the work of transforming lives begins in our local neighborhoods, and Leadership Miami gave them an opportunity to live our mission. They exemplify the next generation of leaders at the U,” said Rudy Fernandez, executive vice president for external affairs and strategic initiatives and chief of staff to President Julio Frenk. 

Gonzalez’s team worked with the LRIC to revamp and safeguard their outdoor playground. But once her team, Evolv3, learned more about the center—which serves children with developmental delays from birth to 3 years old and prepares them to join a typical preschool class—the group raised additional funds to update the interior of the center, too.

The team also realized that the LRIC did not have broad community exposure, so they created social media accounts to bring more awareness to the amazing work the staff members are doing for these children, according to Gonzalez. Team Evolv3 has also started to establish a donation program to ensure that continued financial support and sustainability will help the center thrive for many years to come. 

“Everybody on my team really stepped up and committed to this project for the Linda Ray Intervention Center,” said Gonzalez, who has worked at the University for six years, starting as a program coordinator for the Miami Herbert Business School. “These are our future leaders, so these are the people we need to help.” 

At the same time, Perez’s team—Mission 2 Impact—worked with Amigos for Kids, an organization that runs free after school care programs across Miami. Overall, Amigos for Kids aims to value children by strengthening families and education, while also helping to prevent child abuse and neglect within the Hispanic community. At the new “Imagination Station” literacy room, located at Jose Marti Park, Perez’s team created an inviting classroom-like space for literacy tutoring, with new, fully stocked bookshelves, an organized closet of new reading materials, upgraded computers for students and employees, a printing station, and a new flat-screen television. 

A proud University of Miami employee for nine years, Perez immigrated to Miami from Cuba at age 12. She can still recall her own challenge in learning how to read and write in English, even though her mother taught her English before they left the island. 

She hopes the new space will offer a better support system to children in Miami who may be struggling to read for a variety of reasons. 

“I can’t imagine what these kids go through when there is no English being spoken at home, and many of them don’t even read in Spanish yet, so it’s even harder for them,” said Perez, who also started at the Miami Herbert Business School. “As a refugee myself, I knew I wanted to help impact literacy for new immigrants to Miami.” 

Both women feel fortunate that they were able to participate in the program, which allowed them to contribute something tangible to the community, while collaborating with other professionals from across South Florida. 

“I always knew I wanted to give back to the community, but sometimes it takes a while to get there,” said Perez. “I am so glad we were able to do this. And through Leadership Miami, both personally and professionally, I’ve made friendships and connections that will last a lifetime.”

Gonzalez agreed. “A group of nine individuals, that four months ago were strangers to me, have now become my closest friends,” she said, referring to her Evolv3 teammates. “Miracles happen when we wholeheartedly unite for a great cause.”

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