Early in this decade, things looked bleak for Branches, a fledgling, Methodist-founded family service organization in Miami-Dade County.
Fire, possibly arson, had destroyed much of the Florida City United Methodist Church at the location of one of its facilities, and its after-school programs for underprivileged kids had to operate out of portables.
Rescue came largely courtesy of philanthropists and devout Methodists Trish and Dan Bell of Miami. They contributed $1.8 million to a $5 million capital campaign to rebuild and enhance Branches’ mission.
The North Dade headquarters of Branches was renovated, and in 2015, a new, $3 million, 11,000-square-foot facility opened to great fanfare in Florida City. It housed the church and the Branches operation.
The hope was that it would drastically expand the number of children and families served by Branches. Today, much of that hope has come true.
“Since then, we have basically doubled the number of children and youth we serve,” Branches’ development director Isabelle Pike said.
“We are the go-to place in Florida City – we serve working poor families. We serve the entire family together.”
Branches in its current form as a family service organization was started by Kim Torres, who came to the area just out of school in 1993 as part of a Methodist-sponsored relief mission after Hurricane Andrew.
The Florida City branch, one of four facilities at three locations, initially served about 30 elementary school-age children and 15 middle- and high-school aged youth and their families. By the time of the fire, those numbers had roughly doubled.
Today, they have more than doubled again, to 125 children in the Grow program for young children and 100 in the Climb program for older youth. Overall, Branches today serves some 450 young people and their families.
The name, by the way, comes from John 15:5, in which Christ compares himself and his followers to a grapevine: “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.”
It has two main goals in its work with families.
It seeks to help children from working low-income families prosper in school and go to college, and it seeks to stabilize their families by providing financial counseling and guidance.
Those goals may seem modest, but they can loom large for people served by Branches.
Many are immigrants, and some new to the country with limited English. Many of the parents both work, some more than one job, and aren’t home when children get out of school.
At Branches’ North Miami headquarters, the families served are mainly Haitian; in the South Miami facility, nearly all are black.
In the Florida City facility, almost 100 percent are from Mexico, Central America, or Haiti. The parents often don’t speak or write English well enough to help children with homework, and most have never had a child apply to college.
“Sometimes the schools will call us if the child has a problem,” said Torres, now director of student services at Branches.
“It might be something as simple as the child says they left their homework here at Branches, or the family didn’t get the free lunch application done and the parents aren’t available, or there’s a language problem. Sometimes we’ll send a translator to a parent-teacher conference.
“Or maybe there’s a project. Last year I think we did 67 science projects.”
For older children, “They don’t even understand the vocabulary that college admissions people use.”
Many of them struggle with such tasks as filling out the complex FAFSA form, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, ten pages of financial questions and dense instructions that virtually all schools and other financial aid providers require.
For the Grow children, the goal is to provide a home-like atmosphere with recreation, homework, and nutrition after school.
The children come when school lets out and receive a snack. After that, there’s a supervised homework period, clubs, and playtime. Twice a week, they get dinner, and parents pick them up at about 6 p.m.
Older kids in the Climb program come to the facility after extracurriculars at school for homework help, tutoring and dinner twice a week.In the 8th grade, they begin college prep.
The goal, Pike said, is to create an assumption that the student will graduate from high school and go to college or another post-secondary career step such as the military or vocational training.
They are encouraged to apply for student financial aid from many sources, including a Branches scholarship of $2,500 a year intended to cover incidental expenses.
“College isn’t just tuition,” said Torres - it’s also laundry, a laptop, books, and even occasionally going to a ball game or on a retreat.
Pike provided encouraging statistics concerning the programs’ success.
About 98 percent of the Grow program children return year after year, and 90 percent of the Climb youth.
Almost all graduate from high school – a substantially greater percentage than for the general population in the communities Branches serves -- and then take a post-secondary career step of some kind. The program currently has 41 graduates in college, all of them the first generation in their family to go.
For many of the students, leaving home for college “is scary and overwhelming,” Pike said.
Partly for that reason, the most common destination is Miami-Dade College, but some transfer after two years.
Branches has several alumni at Florida International University, several at FAMU, a few at the University of Florida, one at the University of Central Florida – and one who just started at Yale.
The Climb and Grow programs cost $25 a year.
For Parents, the Achieve financial wellness program is free and consists mainly of one-on-one financial coaching.
Financial mentors look at the family’s credit rating and help formulate a budget and deal with debt, to build credit and assets.
Branches has a staff-client ratio of about 1-to-10 with a paid staff of 70, mostly full-time, including about 20 AmeriCorps volunteers.
In all, the Bells have contributed almost $7 million to the Branches organization since 2005, and their son, Rodney Bell, is chairman of the organization’s board of directors.
--William March is a freelance writer in Tampa.