By Jeff Brumley
Martin Villa, a 21-year-old film major, devoted a recent weeknight, as he does on many weeknights, helping children with their math and reading homework at a faith-based after-school program in West Homestead, Fla.
He worked patiently and with laser focus from child to child, motivated, he said, by the knowledge that he was once a student at Open House Ministries himself.
“Without this program I would have been in the hood,” Villa said about the Cooperative Baptist ministry which merged earlier this year with another nearby CBF outreach called Touching Miami with Love.
As amazing as Villa’s experience is, it’s not unusual either at the West Homestead or original TML site in Overtown, say its leaders, volunteers, staff and students.
And now that the merger has been implemented, the resulting increase in grants and staffing means those kind of impacts can increase, ministry leaders say.
“If you ask us what the product is that results from our ministry, it’s disciples,” said Wanda Ashworth Valencia, a CBF field personnel member who has headed the West Homestead site since 2004.
“We are raising disciples who long to give back.”
TML devoted its annual banquet last Saturday to celebrating both its 20th anniversary and the 2015 merger with Open House Ministries.
By all accounts, the fusion of the two Cooperative Baptist ministries has been seamless, thanks to their shared focus on children and families. But it goes even deeper than that, Valencia said.
One of Assistant Director Angel Pittman’s favorite facts to share is that many of the volunteers and paid staff at both TML sites were once children served by the ministry. Others first came as high school and college students on short-term mission visits to the Miami ministries.
And what staff members described as a “melting pot or tossed salad” of cultures and ethnicities at both TML sites has been paying off for children and their families, too, with larger numbers graduating from high school and going to college from both economically challenged communities.
“It is really a picture of the Kingdom in many ways,” Executive Director Jason Pittman said.
But the two ministries, serving some of the most desperate communities of South Florida, were very different in the beginning.
Nell and Butch Green can tell you that.
They were the field personnel CBF sent to at the request of downtown Miami’s Central Baptist Church. The church, now closed, wanted to reach the homeless, HIV/AIDs, prison and other at-risk populations that surrounded it.
Meanwhile the Greens had just left their service with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board and were in discussions about the kinds of ministries they could lead for CBF. That was in 1994.
“We made a wish list of everything we would like to do after we left IMB,” Nell Green said recently. “On our list was homeless ministry, prison ministry, ministry to internationals and being in an inner city and urban environment.”
A short time later, CBF sent them a job description for directors of the new ministry in downtown Miami. It included every item on the couple’s wish list.
“It was freakish,” she said.
The project was called Touching Miami with Love, after the motto of Central Baptist.
The ministry began to gel as the then-recently formed CBF of Florida partnered with the effort and began to provide resources. Green said its leaders made TML possible.
“Pat and Carolyn Anderson had the unique gift of empowering us,” Nell Green said. “We could dream as big as we wanted to dream and they would put the structures around us to make it happen.”
‘We grew organically’
When Steven Porter arrived at TML in 1998, it was led by CBF field personnel Larry and Laquita Wynn and focused on homeless ministry, prison outreach, HIV/AIDS, at-risk children, international students and English as a second languge.
But even by the early 2000s, the Wynns were sensing that TML programming needed to be scaled back, said Porter, who went on to lead the ministry until 2005.
“We realized we had divided focus and that we needed to narrow what we were doing,” said Porter, now coordinator of global missions for CBF.
Eventually, that focus settled on holistic family ministry in Overtown, a community near downtown marked by poverty, violence and failing schools.
An effort was also underway to transform the ministry into a a nonprofit organization with an ecumenical board and capable of getting grants, said Porter. The ministry’s current building, which is owned by CBF Florida, was purchased in 2002.
All of those moves positioned TML to become what it is today, he said.
“We grew organically as a community-based organization which has become more sophisticated,” Porter said. “Jason and Angel have taken it to a new level with new funding models and revenue streams.”
And in no way will TML’s merger with Open House Ministries diminish either organization’s effectiveness, he said.
“Both organizations are so rooted in their communities that I am not worried about the dilution of focus,” he said. “They have both grown in a way that is deeply connected to their communities.”
A powerful boost
That is Valencia’s assessment, too.
Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was the spark that led to the eventual creation of Open House Ministries.
Also connected with a church initially — Christ Journey Church in Coral Gables — Open House was a CBF effort which included Bible clubs, clothing and food ministries and helping residents with emergency needs.
But as other local churches and ministries began to do those jobs, Open House moved into helping local students and their families.
“There were so many challenges in the community and the students were eager for us to be there as a support and safe haven,” Valencia said.
Even a decade or more ago, she added, she and Porter were discussing a possible merger of the two ministries, but it never worked out.
Now that it has, it’s been a powerful boost to Open House, which now goes by TML, too.
“We went from seven to 12 staff and two of them are certified teachers,” Valencia said. “We also have social work interns to get to the root of family issues.”
‘To empower children’
They are also getting at the root of other social issues affecting students and their families, said one volunteer at the TML Overtown site.
“The environment can be terrible,” said Zayquan Moss, 16, a reading and math volunteer at TML who has attended the ministry as a student since age 6.
Moss said it often takes months or years to convince students a better life is attainable for them if they work hard and stay out of trouble. “We make them want a better future.”
He said that’s what happened for him, and that’s why he gives his evenings to helping younger students.
“To empower children is why I volunteer here,” he said.
Eboni Person, youth program director at the Overtown site, said students aren’t the only ones who grow from the programming.
“When they learn, I learn,” Person said. “It’s the relationships with the kids that help me grow as a person.”
Volunteers and staff also feel rewarded knowing they are helping save and improve the quality of the lives of their students, said Becky Blanco, children’s coordinator for the West Homestead site.
“They would be playing in the streets” and some of the boys would be in gangs without TML, she said.
Even those who have maintained an involvement with TLM report being changed by the program, Angel Pittman said.
“We have untold people wo have said their journey toward missions or pastoral ministry or the seminary was because of their time here,” she said.
The impact is measureable in other ways. Almost 100 percent of TML students graduate from high school and 90 percent go to college.
“One kid got into the University of Miami this year,” Jason Pittman said.