Three Cheers for the Volunteers

And one big raspberry for the supervisors who allowed Dade's AmeriCorps to go down the tubes

These days, Juanita (not her real name), a Nicaraguan immigrant with three young children, looks at the near-empty park and says, no, she's never heard of AmeriCorps. Even with the increased police patrols following the child's murder, she notes, "I don't really feel safe. That could have been my son who was killed." She can't forget the shots she heard.

Back in February, six AmeriCorps members led a clean-up effort that lasted at least a week; it was meant to be the first step toward reclaiming the park from the gang members, drug users, and thugs who usually stake out the area near two small basketball courts.

According to current and former AmeriCorps members, the February removal of broken glass and garbage was supposed to be a high-visibility effort that they hoped would be followed by additional repairs provided by city and civic groups, the recruiting of more neighborhood volunteers, the establishment of a basketball league, and other initiatives designed to "empower the community" and reduce youth involvement in gangs. But apart from glass removal and the addition by the parks department of sand to a playground, little else was done.

In a newsletter published in February, United Way of Dade had announced, "Gang violence and drug abuse have ravaged much of the community." It was supposedly working with a local neighborhood agency, East Little Havana Community Development Corporation (CDC), to "rebuild" Riverside Park. But Ines Padilla, a former AmeriCorps member who claims she was dismissed because she was insistent in her attempts to alert administrators to an internal theft problem, says, "We never provided improvements [to the park], we never developed community volunteers, and we never offered young people an alternative to gang membership."

Marta Carbonell, the head of the CDC, blames "bureaucratic things" placed in their way by the city's parks department for the failures at Riverside Park. But Albert Ruder, director of the City of Miami parks and recreation department, says, "We welcomed [Americorps members] with open arms, but they didn't seem to follow through." Padilla and other volunteers familiar with the East Little Havana program say neither Carbonell nor the AmeriCorps supervisor at the time (there have been three in nine months) aggressively prodded the parks department to help with the rehabilitation project.

The program didn't inspire widespread resident involvement; only a handful of neighbors -- usually no more than two, Padilla says -- chipped in on the cleanup. "We should have made sure the community bought in [to the project] and the park service was on board before we went in," says Chris Gilmore, executive director of the Florida Governor's Commission on Community Service, which funneled the federal money to Dade's program.

Riverside Park does seem a bit safer today -- but only because of a stepped-up police presence in the wake of the Ramirez slaying. One neighbor, a fearful mother of three who did not want her name published, sits on her porch bordered by a black iron fence. Looking warily out at the park on a sunny September afternoon, she says bitterly, "If the police were doing then what they are doing now, that child would still be alive." Even now, she is still too worried about her children's safety to let them play at Riverside Park. Earlier in the month, before the shooting, she had complained that AmeriCorps hadn't followed through. This view is shared by Fernando Gonzales, vice president of Neighbors in Action, who says, "They can say they're doing a lot, but they're doing nothing."

Despite such criticism, the AmeriCorps Dade program reported proudly to government funders in April as part of its first 1995 report: "The East Little Havana team watched as residents began to use Riverside Park again for picnics, family outings, and sporting activities thanks to their clean-up efforts." Don't tell that to the fearful mother who lives across the street. She has a report of her own to offer: "We live under lock and key."

Equally discouraging to some East Little Havana residents was the failure to get a Riverside Park basketball league under way. They hoped it could provide a safe alternative for kids while reclaiming the Riverside basketball courts from petty criminals. Last March, Juan Diaz, a charismatic, extroverted former track star from Puerto Rico, volunteered to sign up neighborhood kids ages ten to fifteen to participate in a tournament. He got interested in AmeriCorps after being one of the few volunteers to actually help during the Riverside Park cleanup.

He signed up more than 40 youngsters, and now, sitting in his kitchen after a long day working as a roofer, he reminisces in Spanish with a controlled anger: "The kids were full of illusions about everything that was going to happen, but AmeriCorps didn't support us. They put it on hold and didn't pay attention." He blames the AmeriCorps field coordinator at the time for not obtaining the necessary permit from the city to run the league and for not offering any other help. "I wanted to use the league to get rid of the hoods," Diaz says with frustration.

"How can I go back and face all the people I talked to?" he adds. And when he's shown an unofficial United Way list of accomplishments for East Little Havana that includes a "basketball league with twenty players and one coach," he snaps bitterly, "They're charlatans!" (Cathy Knighton, the current East Little Havana field coordinator, claims the league played for a month and that it collapsed only because the coach -- presumably Diaz -- wouldn't submit to a city-mandated background check. Diaz says he filled out all required forms and no league games were played. (Parks director Ruder says his department did not issue any permit for a basketball league at Riverside Park.)

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