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August 14th, 2014

Engagement Academy leaves participants informed, inspired

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  former Village Council candidate who has volunteered for local committees. A pair of expats who helped form an organization that reaches out to other newcomers. Professionals from a variety of fields, parents raising their kids on the Key, activists and more.
Participants in this summer’s Village Engagement Academy came from all walks of life, but all shared something essential: a desire to learn more about their community in hopes to becoming more involved in giving back.
The Engagement Academy, which was sparked by a suggestion from Council member Theo Holloway and spearheaded by the Key Biscayne Community Foundation, met four times in May and June. Sessions included an orientation, a primer on local history and pre-incorporation days, presentations on how Village government operates today, and a look to the future.
Village Manager John Gilbert and Mayor Frank Caplan praised the effort, calling it a way to get more people involved – everyone from those who have taken part in government activities in the past to those who had not yet been active in civic affairs.
“I’m very excited about it,” Gilbert told the Council as the program got underway earlier this year. “It’s a great, intelligent group of people representing many different cultures.”
Meanwhile, after the academy concluded, Caplan said, “It was a really well done, well-organized and meaningful series of presentations. Good things, I hope, will come of that.”
Indeed, Holloway suggested the program this spring as a way to reach out to people who might feel disengaged from the local government.
From there, KBCF Executive Director Melissa McCaughan-White helped develop a comprehensive and relevant program, while Key Biscayne Community Center Manager Ana Colls helped recruit 25 students.
Students attended an orientation, followed by three sessions on different topics:
The first, featuring local author and historian Joan Gill Blank, took participants through the early days of Key Biscayne, up to the incorporation movement and the period immediately after the Village incorporated. During the second session, Gilbert, Caplan and local department directors educated students about how Village government functions today.
Finally, participants were led through a look into the future, as Village officials revealed existing vision plans – and beyond – for the Key Biscayne of tomorrow.
Participants said they left the presentations with a broader grasp of how local government works – and said they’ll use that insight to benefit their community.
Patrick Kelly, a Council candidate in 2012 and volunteer on local committees, said he wasn’t sure what to expect when he started the Village Engagement Academy – but soon found what he called a valuable learning experience that inspired him to continue his involvement in local committees, volunteer opportunities and other civic matters.
“Although I am already involved in different civic programs in the Village, I can say that after the program I have a renewed interest in further participating and giving back to the community,” Kelly said. “I have always loved this community and have always made an effort to be a part of it and not sit on the sidelines.  After participating in this academy, I feel prouder to be a part of the Village and the history behind its existence.”
Two more participants, Rebeca Calvet and Patricia Azanza, said they’ll use what they learned to tie in their current involvement to the Village government.
Calvet and Azanza started an organization called Club Expats, which reaches out to newcomers from other countries to help them find services and a support system. While their efforts are not formally linked to the local government, they serve a group the Village is very interested in reaching: new families from other countries who may not get involved in public affairs due to language and cultural barriers and a lack of familiarity with local government and history.
“We thought it was a great opportunity for us to join the academy to understand the functioning of the island in order to transmit what we learned to the Spanish-speaking expat community that we represent. After these sessions, we already feel part of the community and have a strong sense of responsibility within the community,” they remarked. “We represent a large group of Spanish-speaking expatriates that live in the island, and our goal now is to involve and engage our expat community in Key Biscayne´s operation and functioning.
“We want the expats to feel and act as real Key Rats!”
And when participants like Kelly, Calvet and Azanza do engage in civic life, they’ll do so from a very well-informed position.
Calvet and Azanza said before the academy, most of their knowledge about the Village came from reading The Islander News and talking to Council members. Now, “Our understanding is undoubtedly much higher.”
Kelly also walked away with added insight into Village affairs.
“I thought I was pretty well versed in Village government and history, but after attending the Engagement Academy I realized I had a lot to learn,” Kelly said, adding a highlight was hearing directly from current and past Mayors, Council members and Village leaders.
“I would say that the presentations from the Village Manager, Fire Chief, Police Chief and other Village directors on their respective responsibilities gave me a very in-depth understanding of how the Village operates,” Kelly noted.
He added hearing about incorporation from those who actually fought the fight was especially remarkable. “There is nothing like hearing it from the people that worked so hard and fought to make the Village possible,” Kelly said.
Calvet and Azanza agreed the session on incorporation was a standout – and an inspiration.
“The most interesting part was to find out that our little paradise is a paradise thanks to the effort and perseverance of a group of inspiring and intelligent people,” they said. “We must feel proud of the group of persons that leads our Village and that represent our interest.”

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