Nurse in Fourth Year of Bringing Smiles

The Miami Herald
Section: Neighbors BC
Edition: Final
Page: 2MB

José was an 8-year-old homeless boy who did not speak.

According to Bessie Perry-Garrett, who accompanied José on a bus trip to Disney World in Orlando two years ago, the boy was sitting by the window as the bus pulled into the Disney theme park. His eyes widened as he saw hedge sculptures of Mickey, Donald Duck and Goofy. All at once, José started hitting Perry-Garrett's knee and shouting, ``BG! BG! Honest-to-God, BG, this is Disney?''

This week, for the fourth year in a row, Perry-Garrett - known by the children as ``BG'' - was again spending her summer vacation at Disney World with 43 of her newest friends.

``These kids have been hungry all their lives. They are looking after their moms and their little brothers and sisters. It is my dream to give these kids their childhood before it's too late,'' Perry-Garrett said.

After winning the Green Family Foundation United Way American Values Award and a $5,000 check in 1998, Perry-Garrett, a registered nurse at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Miami, founded ``Smile With A Child,'' a program that takes homeless kids to Disney World for a break from hard lives.

Participating children come from the Miami Rescue Mission and Mother Theresa's Sisters of Charity & Safe Haven Program. This summer's group consisted of 43 homeless children from 6 to 16, and 10 volunteers.

On Monday, with visions of the Magic Kingdom and Universal Studios in mind, the vacationers boarded a bus to Orlando outside the United Way of Miami-Dade County. The group returns today.

The trip was sponsored in part by the United Way of Miami-Dade County, The Green Family Foundation and an anonymous donor. Burger King donated meals for the travelers.

The approximate cost of the trip was $10,000, according to Arthur Hernandez, assistant vice president of leadership and major gifts for the United Way of Miami-Dade County.

There is no Disney discount for ``Smile With A Child,'' but Perry-Garrett says the expense and effort are well worth it.

``I have learned that to give people an incentive to do something, you've got to give to get. People who have nothing need a visual, a goal,'' Perry-Garrett said. ``It's like taking somebody to the moon. Now that they know it's up there, they know if they really work hard, they get to go back.''

While visiting Orlando, the group was invited to stay free of charge at the San Pedro Center in Winter Park, near the theme parks. The center's grounds provide the perfect surrounding for the open-air educational workshops planned for the children during their spare time, Perry-Garrett said. It also provides the younger ones with some green space to run and play - something they cannot do in the shelters.

Celeste was one of the lucky ones going on the Orlando trip.

``I never been before and I think it's pretty cool of BG to invite us all,'' said Celeste, 16, just before the trip. ``I imagine that Disney is like being in a different world. It's not an environment where everybody is against each other.''

Claire, 16, has been part of the Safe Haven program for two months. She said she was looking forward to a change of pace.

``I just want to go and try to relax and be myself, get along with everybody and chill,'' she said.

The selection of Disney candidates is a simple process; children are picked for the trip according to what they have contributed to their personal growth.

The trip is the realization of an experience Perry-Garrett had in 1992. The inspiration for ``Smile with A Child'' was a 5-year-old boy, one of Perry-Garrett's ``kids'' who lived under a bridge in the Overtown section of Miami.

``He came up to me and said, `BG, shave my head bald. Just get a razor and go z-zing. I'll act like I'm really sick, then I get to go to Disney World','' Perry-Garrett recalled.

When she realized that he'd gotten the idea from the Make-A-Wish Foundation program that grants wishes to seriously ill children, she was shocked.

``It brings tears to my eyes every time I think about it,'' Perry-Garrett said. ``I don't think people have to be dying in order to go to Disney World.''

When she is not on the go in downtown Miami and the Grove to attend to the medical needs of the homeless, especially women and children, this mother and grandmother works for the department of immunology at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center. She is also active with the South Florida AIDS network and many other organizations.

Perry-Garrett is a widow living in Bay Harbor Islands. She has a daughter, Laneia Smith, 34, who lives in California with Perry-Garrett's granddaughter, Lauren, 14.

A nurse for more than 30 years, Perry-Garrett did her undergraduate in nursing at Purdue University and has a master's degree in business administration in rehabilitation administration from DePaul University in Chicago. She says she doesn't need another degree to know that ``Smile With A Child'' is good medicine. She lets her examples speak for themselves.

As for José, he and his mother now live in Brownsville, Texas. Perry-Garrett said she speaks with them regularly and both are doing well. She said the last time she spoke to Jose's mom, she asked Perry-Garrett to come for a visit.

``You started my son talking,'' Perry-Garrett said José's mother told her, ``so now I need you to come down here and shut him up.''

CARL JUSTE/HERALD STAFF GETTING READY: Bessie Perry-Garrett and other participants in the Smile With A Child Program take a moment of silence to pray for a safe bus trip to Walt Disney World.