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#659: Haitians filling need with social agency (fwd)


Published Monday, October 4, 1999, in the Miami Herald 
 Haitians filling need with social agency BY BRAD BENNETT 

 After moving to Broward County from Miami four years ago, Francois
Leconte realized there were few social services catering to Haitian
 immigrants. As a former case worker with the federal Housing
 Opportunities for People with AIDS program in Miami, the Haitian-born
Leconte knew well the special language and cultural barriers facing
 Haitians. He started handing out pamphlets from the trunk of his car.
Soon he founded an organization, Minority Development & Empowerment,


 Last year, using grant money, he bought a one-story building on
Northeast 13th Street in Fort Lauderdale to serve as a headquarters.
 ``It's finally being able to provide services to a community that was
in such dire need,'' said Marvin Dejean, vice president of marketing for
the operation. Last week, the agency made headlines by providing
lodging, transportation and translation services free to the mother of a
17-year-old Haitian boy who was struck by a car in Fort Lauderdale.

 Earlier this year, the agency made news by building bridges between
Fort Lauderdale Police and the city's Haitian community following
 complaints that members of the community had been mistreated.
 And it has captured attention again by working with the U.S. Census
Bureau to improve the count of the Haitian population.


 Officially, the 1990 census counted 25,000 Haitians in Broward. But
agency officials say the true number is closer to 100,000. The agency
says it assisted nearly 10,000 Haitians last year, providing help with
 immigration issues, translation services, housing and job location
services, and other assistance. Its primary goal is to help Haitians
become more self-sufficient, Leconte said. ``We see the client as an
asset, instead of a need,'' said Leconte, 35, president and chief
executive officer of the agency. ``Instead of being in need all the
time, that client will be able to become a productive citizen.''
 Jean Virgile, 24, the agency's executive vice president, agreed.
 ``We're in the business of empowering people,'' he said.


 To raise money for more empowerment, the agency will hold a fund-raiser
Oct. 15 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. The black-tie
event, called Une Soiree D'Elegance, `Images of Our Past, Voices
 of Our Future, will take place from 8 p.m. to midnight. The special
guest and keynote speaker is Rose Marie Toussaint, the first female
 Haitian liver and kidney transplant surgeon in the world, and author of
the book Never Question the Miracle, A Surgeon's Story. Also featured
will be a display of Haitian art and artifacts by famed Haitian artist
 Raphael Sagage, and a fashion show by Haitian designer Clarke Poyau of
Haiti and New York. ``The event is our way of thanking those who have
helped the Haitian community throughout the years,'' Leconte said.


 The agency will honor U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar and Claude
 Louissaint, president of the Haitian American Democratic Club, among
other dignitaries. A candlelight vigil at the New River will commemorate
Haitians who died at sea during the massive boat exodus from Haiti in
the 1980s. To help Haitian immigrants make the transition to America,
the agency has 22 employees who provide support groups, domestic
violence and child-abuse counseling, HIV risk management, mental-health
counseling, tutoring, and help uniting families separated by
immigration, among other services.


 Next month, the agency will open another job training and development
program in connection with the Urban League of Broward County. Leconte
hopes to one day start a scholarship program to help high-school
 students go to college. With employees speaking everything from Haitian
Creole to English and Spanish, agency officials stress that the group's
services are available for all minorities. ``We're not just a Haitian
agency,'' said Dejean, 30. ``We're an agency that can service
minorities, period.'' It is also a quickly growing agency. In 1996, its
first year of incorporation, the agency received $7,000 from the
Community Foundation of Broward County. Now its funding -- almost
exclusively from grants -- has grown from $250,000 last year to roughly
$1 million. ``We're here to stay,'' Virgile said. ``We're not just some
organization that's going to be here today and gone tomorrow.''