Sustainer Deborah Korge, Executive Director of Casa Valentina, Featured In Miami Today

posted on



Running a nonprofit organization is more difficult than running a for-profit. So says Patrick Morris, who as current vice president of Sabadell Bank and co-founder and former CEO of nonprofit volunteer organization Hands On Miami has been a leader in both realms.  “In a for-profit, you have a finance person, you have someone doing human resources, you have someone doing marketing,” said Mr. Morris, a member of the Nonprofit Business Committee at the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.  Nonprofit executives, he added, “have to have all those skills as well as be a motivator of their team and the board and be able to articulate the mission of the organization to the community.”   South Florida nonprofit executives who gracefully wear those hats, according to Mr. Morris, are Casa Valentina Executive Director Deborah Korge and Branches Executive Director Brent McLaughlin.   “When you spend time with [Ms. Korge], you see how much she oozes the mission of Casa Valentina and the work that they’re doing,” Mr. Morris said.

Since 2006, Casa Valentina has been the only Miami-Dade nonprofit that provides housing and mentoring to teenagers who age out of foster care once they turn 18. About 100 youths age out of foster care annually in Miami-Dade, Ms. Korge said. “They are being told by the system, ‘You are off on your own. Find housing, find a job,’”Ms. Korge said. “We said, ‘Wait a second. These are still teenagers, and they aren’t ready to live on their own, they aren’t ready to come up with $700 a month for rent.’” Currently, about 22 residents between 18 and 23 live in housing Casa Valentina rents, owns or has access to through a partnership with Camillus House. “Our goal is to try to get them as well on track as possible, so when they leave us, they are more like their peers who have not been in the system,” Ms. Korge said.  Challenges these youths have encountered range from abuse to lagging academically. “Sometimes a student comes in and they are 18 and they are still in the tenth grade. That’s a big dent in their self esteem,” Ms. Korge said. “But if we say, ‘OK, let’s get your GED and now you can go to Miami Dade [College], or now you can go to vocational school,’ that goes a long way because it makes what they want to do a little bit more attainable.”

While Casa Valentina and Branches serve different community needs, they have a similar approach. Rather than fixing a problem for their participants, the programs give people the tools to help themselves. “We are not going to do it for them… but we are here to provide them opportunities,” said Mr. McLaughlin of Branches. “Everything we do is really empowerment based.”

Founded in 1973, Branches gives after-school academic help and mentoring to elementary, middle and high-school students. As Branches volunteers develop a relationship with students, “that really makes a difference in a child’s life because it’s someone who cares for them. It’s not just another exercise doing a worksheet,” Mr. McLaughlin said. Branches educates adults how to reach financial stability through an array of programs – from tax-return preparation to budgeting and business development. The Ways to Work Car Loan Program, for example, might qualify participants for a car loan at an 8% interest rate. “This is a character-based loan program,” Mr. McLaughlin said. If approved for the car loan, other parts of people’s lives start rolling forward, he added. They are able to go to work on time and take their children to school on time. “This is the same group that will be preyed upon for predatory lending practices and student loans, so they are caught up in this cycle that they entered into blindly and they don’t know how to get out of it,” said Laurie Zapletal, business deposit officer at BB&T and Branches board member, who also nominated Mr. McLaughlin.  After school mentoring and adult financial help classes are free, Mr. McLaughlin said. To qualify, children have to be on free or reduced-price school lunch, he said. Branches has centers in Florida City, South Miami, nearby North Miami and North Miami Beach.

At these nonprofits, successes stories are everyday accomplishments.  A woman was recently able to pay off $6,000 in debt in eight months following Branches-provided financial education, and a Casa Valentina student is headed to Florida State University.  “We always look for those [successes] because it means so much to them and so much to us,” Ms. Korge said. “We celebrate it all because these are major accomplishments in their life, and we are so proud of them.