Bringing Smiles to Faces of Homeless Kids

Miami Herald, The (FL)
Section: Neighbors NW
Edition: Final
Page: 8NW

For 10 years, Bessie Garrett dreamed of showing homeless children a fun time.

What pushed her to do it was meeting an inner-city boy while she was on rounds giving medical treatment to the homeless in Overtown. ``There was an instance where a 5-year-old boy told me that he wanted to get his hair shaved off, and I asked him why,'' Garrett said. ``He told me that if he got his hair shaved off and got really sick, then he could go to Disney World. This really broke my heart.''

It made her think. The Make-A-Wish Foundation was making dreams come true for terminally ill children, but who was giving hope to homeless children?

``This always seemed like the right thing to do because no one else out there was doing this type of thing,'' Garrett said.

Last year, with help from the Green Family Foundation, the United Way and Burger King, Garrett escorted 41 children who live in shelters on a trip to Disney World.

The hope of helping homeless children fulfill their dreams began when Garrett was given the $5,000 Green Family Foundation United Way American Values Award for her work with the homeless. The Green Family Foundation supports several programs from AIDS assistance to grassroots arts programs to mobile medical units for low-income housing residents.

With this money, Garrett founded Smile with a Child.

Doing volunteer work at the Miami Rescue Mission for Women and Children inspired Garrett to create the program, she said.

``I didn't equate `homeless' to women and children - I thought of old men until I began working at Camillus House.''

Green Family Foundation administrator Angela McBride said the foundation didn't hesitate for a moment about contributing to Smile with a Child.

``Bessie is the driving force behind this project and her generosity for others has gotten us involved in this,'' McBride said.

On Monday, Garrett officially takes a vacation from her job as a nurse at the Miami Veterans Affairs Medical Center. But don't think she'll be resting. Garrett and her volunteer staff of 10 will take another group of 50 children and their mothers from the Miami Rescue Mission for Women and Children and from Mother Theresa's Sisters of Charity shelter on a trip to Disney World.

The three-day retreat at Disney World will cost $10,000, which includes transportation, lodging, entrance tickets to the park, meals and some spending money.

Out of this amount, The Green Family Foundation, United Way and Burger King have given $6,000.

``The reason the trip costs so much is because they'll be staying at the San Pedro Retreat in Orlando,'' said Connie Hernandez, spokeswoman for United Way. The trip organizers wanted the kids to stay within Disney so they would feel the excitement of the park for the entire three days.

The kids don't know who's footing the bill. They only know they're going.

Esterline Nicholas, 18, is one of the youth eagerly awaiting the trip. Nicholas is the mother of three-year-old Malena. ``I think Malena will have fun because she loves all the cartoon characters,'' Nicholas said.

During the trip, the women, children and volunteers participate in different workshops on improving communication between parents and children, defining a mother's role, perfecting interviewing skills, practicing proper etiquette and learning the right dosage of medicine to give to a child.

Last year, Anthony D. Evans volunteered his time and money to go with the children to Disney World. This year he plans to do it again.

``When I met Bessie, she was genuine about helping the helpless so I wanted to join in this effort,'' Evans said. ``I call her my adoptive mom because she has such a motherly attitude toward these families.''

Garrett is a busy woman. During the day, she works as a registered nurse at the medical center. At night, she plans events for homeless children. On the weekends, she does HIV/AIDS volunteer testing on the homeless at 79th Street and Biscayne Boulevard, hands out condoms to prostitutes and tries to educate them about the risks they are taking.

Originally from Tennessee, Garrett said she always liked medicine and her major in college was initially pre-med.

``My father wouldn't hear it because I had three brothers, and I was the only girl,'' Garrett said. ``Then, I became a nurse because it came naturally to me.''

Garrett went to Purdue University and obtained two degrees: an associate's and a bachelor's degree in nursing.

But she didn't stop there.
Garrett went to graduate school at DePaul University in Chicago where she earned two master's degrees: one in business and the other in rehabilitation administration.

Garrett traded her ski gear for a swimsuit when she left Indiana for Florida. When her husband, Levelle, died of cancer five years ago, Garrett began lavishing the love she had given to her family to the people in the Miami Rescue Mission, because her daughter and granddaughter were far away, living in California.

Josie Merlet, 42, is director of the Miami Rescue Mission and said she enjoys participating in anything that Garrett does.

``Bessie is a uniquely gifted volunteer and her heart has always been for the women and children because she believes that every child deserves an opportunity in life.''

NURI VALLBONA / Herald Staff HEART OF GOLD: Bessie Garrett holds 8-day-old Mashala Nicolas while sitting beside Latrial Hall, 4. The girls are two of the Miami Rescue Mission children going to Disney World.