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28392: Hermantin(News)A LIFELINE FOR MIAMI'S HAITIANS (fwd)

From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

Posted on Sat, Apr. 29, 2006

The Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center is celebrating five years of helping people with the basics -- filling out forms, finding a job -- in their new country

On a typical day at the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center, people will come from as far away as Homestead and Broward to get help.

They'll be able to write a letter in flawless English to dispute a claim, or type a résumé to find a job. They'll have an accountant help file a tax return. And parents overwhelmed by unruly children can also get advice.

But Sant La is more than a bilingual guidance counselor.

In a region where there's no shortage of immigration-minded agencies, Sant La seeks to distinguish itself by focusing not on the high-profile issue of immigration but on something less glamorous: social work. This week the group celebrated five years.

It started out on a shoe-string, with a staff of three and $25,000. Today Sant La has 11 employees -- two of them part-time -- and an $800,000 budget that helped almost 5,000 people last year. The nonprofit has set an ambitious goal for itself.

''Our goal is that they don't need a Sant La at the end of the day,'' Gepsie Metellus, Sant La's executive director, said of the community's many needs.

Until then, the agency at 5000 Biscayne Blvd. keeps itself busy. Sant La -- Haitian Creole for ''the center'' -- welcomes newly arrived immigrants, helping them hurdle language barriers to file tax returns or penetrate jargon-thick documents: insurance papers, housing applications.


''I needed help with my papers for Section 8 housing, and they were able to help,'' said Mimonde Milfort, 41, a Homestead resident.

The group will also seek money for prescription drugs, as in the case of Stanie Raymonvil, 29, a Margate resident whose 5-year-old daughter, Stasha, has leukemia.

During tax season the group helped 700 people file returns. ''They were supposed to file 225 tax returns,'' said Karla Gottlieb, program director of the Human Services Coalition of Dade County, which helps fund Sant La.

Sant La has also sought to serve the Haitian community in ways beyond the grass-roots level. It brings attention to the community's ills -- many of them sensitive.

Last year, the group enlisted the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution to study the hardships facing Haitians in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Among the findings: Miami-Dade Haitians have a median household income of $27,284, which is almost $9,000 less than the county's median household income and $22,000 less than Miami-Dade's non-Hispanic white population. The county's Haitians also have a poverty rate of 30 percent, compared to 18 percent countywide.

Metellus, who authored an introduction, cites the report as one of the group's more significant accomplishments.

Other duties include contacting elected officials to praise or pressure them on key issues affecting the community. A police arrest last month of an elderly Haitian woman drew concern because the arrest warrant was 25 years old; the Miami-Dade school board's reinstatement of 30-minute Creole radio broadcasts generated applause.

In the future, Metellus says she sees the organization becoming ''more of a think tank,'' which would mean producing more reports and advocacy letters.

One recent advocacy effort is the backing of a Haitian-American principal at Morningside Elementary, and also a push to see Creole incorporated into a somewhat controversial dual-language program at the school.

''Our involvement was not to create controversy,'' Metellus said. ``We hope to create a school that everybody is fighting to get into.''


The Morningside issue coincides with Metellus' interest in running for political office. She expressed interest last year in a County Commission seat after Barbara Carey-Shuler abruptly resigned.

''I'm going to run for public office,'' said Metellus, who has worked as a Miami-Dade county commission aide and public schools employee. ``A significant number of people within the community are urging me to consider the school board seat.''