Ward says none of his employees are forced to participate, but why shouldn't they want to? "This is something that's being done as a result of the approval of the previous and current county manager, and if I had the money to appoint a half-dozen people to work on the campaign I'd do it," he insists. "I think we need it a helluva lot worse than a lot of other things we're doing."
On a sunny late-winter afternoon, a dozen top-ranking police and fire officials from around Dade are engaged in a rib-eating contest in the parking lot outside the Kenny Rogers Roasters restaurant on Bird Road. A giant red billboard with LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR spelled out in giant white letters has been wheeled into the lot. Red and white balloons bob above the long tables, and the Rocky theme blares from strategically placed loudspeakers as the contestants somewhat sheepishly chow down on their platefuls of pork. The few hundred onlookers and members of the media who have assembled to witness the spectacle are eagerly awaiting a glimpse of the restaurant's namesake, country music star Kenny Rogers, who is emceeing the festivities along with his brother Randy.
The Rib-A-Thon is the first of many that will be held nationally to introduce the chain's new "honey back ribs." Roasters is billing the promotions as Love Your Neighbor Rib-A-Thons A part of the Rogers brothers' "grassroots approach" to marketing, according to public relations director Robyn Perlman, who says the slogan came to the company's attention after Ward contacted the local charity Neighbors Helping Neighbors, which was participating in local Rib-A-Thons. (South Florida Roasters stores have donated $10,000 from Rib-A-Thon revenues to Neighbors Helping Neighbors and have catered 1200 meals to other nonprofits, according to Perlman).
"It's a good concept," Kenny Rogers himself says of Love Your Neighbor. "Our goal is to help take it national. It's a way to contribute to the community."
Kenny isn't singing today, but the Love Your Neighbor Ensemble is. Choir director Wendell Wimberly and the twelve DHS employees have arrived, as they do for most of their public performances, in one of the Love Your Neighbor-emblazoned Metrobuses. They sing a song called "Love Your Neighbor," a syncopated tune that sounds like a street-corner a cappella number, and "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)," to which the singers have added verses in Spanish. In other appearances they've sung gospel songs; they also have in their repertoire a spirited version of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Wimberly, the tall, slender manager of DHS's Opa-locka Senior Focal Point program for the elderly, has directed the choir for about three years, since back when it was just an informal group that sang at Christmas parties. Of the criticism of the group's liberal use of county time and resources, he acknowledges, "There were some feelings, but time has dealt with that."
Nor does Wimberly, who also plays trumpet in the 13th Army Band (he's a first sergeant), see any conflict in the fact that the choir sings religious hymns, which some employees believe violates the separation between church and state. The ensemble has become an envoy for Love Your Neighbor, he says, and he believes his job is to produce polished, inspirational music. "As long as we are dealing with staff and employee morale and those things that are good for the department, Mr. Ward believes that is time well spent," Wimberly concludes.
Indeed he does. "They are doing their job but also trying to support Love Your Neighbor to make the community a better place," Ward says. "When [people] say they're not doing the jobs they're supposed to be doing, it's almost akin to saying the U.S. Army and Navy bands, when they practice, aren't doing the jobs they're supposed to, because they're supposed to be out shooting people.