‘Bootstrapper’ Is a Beacon on Miami’s ‘Mean Streets’ : Poverty: ‘Miss Dot’ offers hope on a shoestring to disadvantaged teen-agers in housing project.
These are the mean streets: the Scott-Carver public housing project, home to drug dealers and addicts, welfare mothers, poor kids who see little light at the end of the tunnel.
Five buildings down from Dorothy Perry’s apartment in the predominantly black Liberty City neighborhood, youths sell crack on the corner.
But things are different at the home of “Miss Dot,” who offers 41 kids a place for cooking and sewing lessons, Bible readings, discipline and shelter from what goes on in the streets.
“It’s what we call a bootstrapper--somebody who does a lot with a little,” said the Rev. Willie Sims, a Baptist minister and black community leader.
After school one day, a dozen children ages 2 to 18 sing “Not Here You Don’t,” a rap song telling “Mister Dopeman you can take a ride.” The night before, 23 were over for a rap session.
The formal name of Perry’s nonprofit, money-losing group is Youths Progressing in Public Housing. Their rap group is called the “Singing Angels.”
What started as baby-sitting by the mother of five about 14 years ago has grown into a neighborhood stronghold against drugs, crime, dropouts and teen-age pregnancy.
But it is more than just an after-school day-care program.
Perry, part comforter and part confidante, talks with the zeal of an evangelist about “my babies.”
Most of the children in Perry’s care come from single-parent homes. The mothers of two boys are dead. Some parents are addicts, some are in jail.
“We find things to do to keep them busy, and they can’t be tempted to get involved in the streets,” she said. “We have tried to put these children in a different light so people will see that everybody in public housing is not bad.”
Perry, 49, runs the program almost single-handedly. She has been threatened with eviction and is in a dispute with public housing officials over efforts to move her shoestring program to a nearby community center.
Severe back problems that required surgery recently have left her sitting stiffly in her favorite living-room chair. That chair gives her a view of the front door, the television where the youths’ rap videos are played and the constant stream of traffic passing through her busy home. Frozen Kool-Aid cups are the preferred snack of the day.
As part of her anti-drug campaign, she offers a videotaped program of vivid street scenes.
“We’ve got to make as big an impact on these kids as we can,” Perry said, her authoritative voice rising above the chatter. “I want them to see these people shooting up, free-basing.”
One of her former charges, a crack addict who said she has been drug-free for seven months, comes by to tell the children her experiences.
“The way I had become, I wouldn’t let any of my friends see me,” confessed Carrie Thornton, a 30-year-old mother of five.
But Perry welcomed her former neighbor back with open arms, a hug and a kiss.
“She had me in the kitchen there crying. She told me that she had strayed away, but she came back,” Perry said. “She’s putting her life back together now.”
Perry’s mission has taken her to Washington for a national anti-drug teleconference and a meeting with Jack Kemp, secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He gave her his private phone number, she said.
The “Singing Angels” were guests of state Sen. Carrie Meek at the opening of the legislative session in April in Tallahassee, another in a long list of performances.
In recent months, the children ran a clothing drive to benefit migrant farm workers left without work by a Christmas freeze. They bought Christmas gifts for the senior citizens in Perry’s church and collected for the Toys for Tots program.
“She’s done a fantastic job,” said William Perry, no relation, an aide to Miami City Commissioner Victor DeYurre. “She’s a pioneer for sure, and she’s very determined. She’s very committed to the kids within the project.”