Response: June 2014 Issue

Making a Difference in Key West

Making a Difference in Key West

Wesley House Community Center Works to Make Key West Paradise for All.

Key West. A vacation paradise. Sun, sand, good times, no worries.

If you're a tourist, perhaps. But for too many of the people who clean hotel rooms, drive taxis or wait tables, Key West is Exhibit A in the national debate over income inequality. The worker who cleans up after a drunken tourist may be a single mom working two jobs at minimum wage just to keep a roof over her family's head.

Two sides of paradise

Drive the spectacular Overseas Highway from the tip of the mainland, and when you get to the southern end of US-1 you'll be closer to Havana, Cuba, than Miami. Beside the tourists, chickens and roosters freely roam the streets of Key West.

In some ways, there are two towns. White Street is the dividing line. To the west is Old Town, with its restaurants, hotels, Ernest Hemingway's house and Harry Truman's Little White House, private mansions and bed and breakfasts, beaches, the historic seaport and Mallory Square, where hundreds of tourists gather each evening to watch the sunset. To the east is New Town, some of it built on landfills. New Town is where the poverty and hunger exist that tourists don't see. It is where most of the island's children live.

Wesley House Family Services, a United Methodist Women-supported national mission institution, exists to serve those children. It's on Truman Street, one block east of White Street.

Wesley House has always been about immigrants. The agency's roots go back nearly 100 years. In the 1920s, The Methodist Church opened a settlement for Cubans who were coming to the island to live and work. The immigrants brought a lot of children who did not have the English skills needed to attend the public schools. Wesley House Community Center, as it was then called, taught the kids English. It also sponsored marching bands, embroidery classes for the women, Girl Scout troops and a kindergarten.

In the 1940s, the agency became an independent, nonprofit organization, but it has always maintained close ties with The United Methodist Church and United Methodist Women. United Methodist Women still owns the property and leases it to Wesley House. "We've always wanted to maintain that connection," said the Rev. Ruben Velasco, pastor of Key West United Methodist Church and vice chair of the Wesley House board of directors. "Wesley House is part of who we are. We don't govern it, but it is part of our ministry."

Caring for children

Child care is one of the biggest needs in the community. "You have great hotels and a lot of luxury, but someone's got to clean them, someone's got to work at the front desk, and what do you do with their kids?" Mr. Velasco asked. "There's a lot of poverty down here, and folks sometimes just to survive need at least two to three jobs."

"The middle class is disappearing," squeezed between low wages and the high cost of living in Key West, added Bryan Green, chair of Wesley House's board and interim chief executive director. "If you're a single mom and you need—in a perfect world—a two-bedroom apartment, it's beyond your ability because in the private sector you'd be paying $1,800 or $1,900 a month. And the waiting list for [public] housing is horrendous."

Florida's minimum wage is a shade better than in some other states. It was raised in 2014 to $7.93 ($4.91 for tipped workers) as the result of a cost of living formula approved by voters in 2004. But $7.93 an hour is no match for Key West's high costs. In addition to working more than one job, sometimes several families, particularly immigrants, wind up sharing a single house.

The same issues affect just about any high-cost resort town, Mr. Green notes, but it's different because of the geography of the Keys, which are nothing more than a series of tiny islands linked by a two-lane road and a lot of bridges. The nearest town of any size, Marathon, is an hour away, and the mainland is a two and half hour drive. Working in Key West and living somewhere else to save money is not a logical option.

The Inez Martin Child Development Center is the heart of Wesley House's work. Named for a Methodist deaconess who was one of the founders of Wesley House, it enrolls 90 children, ages 2-5. Most of the parents work in low-wage service industry jobs, and about 65 of the 90 qualify for a tuition subsidy.

"We have a very diverse culture here, with nine different languages spoken in our school," says Christine Patterson, program director of the Inez Martin center. You might expect the Spanish of the Cubans and the Creole of the Haitians, but there are also families from Eastern Europe speaking Polish, Czech, Russian, or Hebrew. There are families from the Ukraine and Kazakhstan, and there is a large population of black Americans of Bahamian descent.

One of the Haitians is Marie Noel. She works as a housekeeper and has been bringing her son, Lorvinsley Bien-Amie, 3, to Inez Martin for a year.

Inez Martin has four classrooms, including a voluntary pre-kindergarten class. (Florida offers free pre-K to all of the state's 4-year-olds, regardless of the parents' income.) All of the children get breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack.

Yobanna Ramos teaches in a classroom for 2-year-olds. She came to Key West from Cuba five years ago. The children she teaches come from Cuba, Haiti, Guatemala and Mexico. They generally don't speak English when they arrive, but Ms. Ramos says that's not a problem because they learn very quickly.

Ms. Ramos says that it's easy to see how the children change after they've been at Inez Martin for a while. "Some don't know how to use the bathroom when they come. They learn that," she says. "They learn good behavior and relationships with the [other] kids. They play together. They learn their letters, the alphabet, the numbers."

Backpack Program

The Backpack Program is an important part of the child development center. "On Mondays, we would have little 2-year-old children at our food cart at 8 in the morning crying to eat," Ms. Patterson said, explaining how the program started. "We never knew when their last meal was over the weekend." The hunger meant that the children weren't learning.

Modeling their program after one in the Middle Keys, the Inez Martin center started sending a backpack full of food home with the children each Friday. A typical backpack could include some pasta, Vienna sausages, fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grain cereal and granola bars. If there are other siblings in the home ages 2-11, a packet of food goes home for them as well.

"This is not meant to take away the parents' responsibility to feed their children," Ms. Patterson said, "but given the community, this is a way for the children to have something."

A positive side effect of the Backpack Program is children are learning to like healthy food, says Lissette Carey, media and events coordinator for Wesley House. "You have so many comments from parents, saying, 'My child would never have eaten this healthy stuff.' So now that it comes home in a backpack, they ask for it," she said.

The Backpack Program is popular in the community, both with the families that benefit directly and with people and organizations who support it financially. "People love to donate to the Backpack Program," Ms. Carey said. She tells donors, "Children will most likely not eat this weekend because their parents are either working or unavailable. And through this backpack, which costs $8-$10, children will be able to feed themselves and their siblings." People like being able to have that immediate impact with their contribution, she adds.

Every other Tuesday, members of a local United Methodist congregation volunteer to pack the backpacks for the coming weekend. One recent Tuesday, it was the turn of Pat Gibson, Redd Slyker and Lisa McCarthy from Key West United Methodist Church.

Ms. Gibson, president of the church's United Methodist Women, explained why they volunteer their time. "When I think of children going without food over the weekend, it just breaks my heart," she said. "It brings me a lot of pleasure, knowing that I'm doing something for these little children who don't have too much."

United Methodist Women also has a Happy Hearts sewing group at the church, which works on a variety of projects. They have made quilts for the children at Inez Martin, pillowcases for a children's home, lap robes for residents of a convalescent center and little heart pillows for children who lost their possessions in Hurricane Sandy.

Ms. Gibson is a Conch (pronounced "konk"), the term for a native of Key West. Her grandfather was a lighthouse keeper in the Keys. Many of the United Methodist Women members in the sewing group are permanent residents; others are there just for the winter.

Though the Inez Martin child care center is the most visible of the Wesley House programs, there are others that are equally important.

Serving the community

In 2005, Florida decided to privatize the services that had been offered by the Department of Children and Families, such as foster care and adoption, including managing cases in which a child must be removed from a home because of abuse or other reasons. Wesley House agreed to take on these services for Monroe County, which includes all of the Florida Keys, and now has about 200 children in its care.

Mr. Green is ambivalent about the privatization. "It was an ideological thing," he said. "It was believed that the private sector could do things better, cheaper, faster, quicker, more sparkly than the state could do it." He feels that the privatization has added an extra layer of bureaucracy between the source of the funds-the state-and the people actually doing the work. But he does feel that when an organization with close community ties like Wesley House handles this work, the system is probably more responsive.

"This is really an agency where the community comes together and helps one another and serves as the center of the city in many ways," said Mr. Velasco.

Evidence of that community connection can be found in "the world's most honest election," which is how the Conch Republic Foster Children's Fund describes its annual Royal Family Election. The fund allows anyone to run for "Queen, Princess, Prince, Court Jester, Count, Countess or any other silly or serious rank that comes to mind," Mr. Velasco said. The election is won with money: every vote costs a dollar, and participants are urged to "vote early, vote often." Every dollar goes to Wesley House to help foster families pay for things that state funds don't cover, like prom dresses, class rings or summer camps. That's an election where every vote counts, helping Wesley House make a difference in Key West.


Jim West is an editorial photographer and writer based in Detroit, Mich., and a frequent contributor to response.

Posted or updated: 5/31/2014 12:00:00 AM
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