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Joseph Bernadel

Sun Sentinel

One Man Plans A One-Stop Center Milagro Director Leaves His Post To Aid Immigrants

Published: March 17, 2000,

By Leon Fooksman, Staff Writer

Language barriers, cultural differences and limited job skills can jeopardize a Haitian immigrant's adjustment to this country.

In Palm Beach County, the need to help those immigrants has propelled one man to quit his job to form a one-stop community center in the city that would provide a litany of support services under one roof. Joseph Bernadel, a Haitian-American and a retired Army major, said the proposed center would provide English language classes, job and life skills training, and assistance in everyday living, from finding housing to balancing a checkbook. Providing such services would help Haitian immigrants integrate more quickly into American society and stay off social programs.

"We need to break this cycle of poverty that generates so many social ills," Bernadel said. "Because services aren't provided in an integrated way, people are slipping through the cracks, and families are under a lot of stress." Bernadel's plan is still in its infancy. He doesn't yet have the financial backing to launch such an effort, and he doesn't have a building or even the staff to run the center. Nonetheless, he's determined to open the center in a highly visible location within two years. So dedicated is Bernadel to the project that he quit his job last week as executive director of the Milagro Center, a nonprofit arts, cultural and educational facility in Delray Beach. Bernadel envisions the two-story, 6,500-square-foot center in one of three locations: on West Atlantic Avenue, on Linton Boulevard across from the Costco store or on South Federal Highway. While the center would duplicate some services currently provided, Bernadel said, it would be the first of its kind in the city, with language skills and job-training initiatives that go beyond existing programs. He said as many as 800 people a year would be served. The center also would include an art studio where Haitian artists can sell their wares and teach others their techniques, he said. In addition to the center, and in a separate building on Southeast First Street, Bernadel wants to establish an art museum showcasing Haitian art, traditional Haitian drums and the migration story of Haitians coming to South Florida. He hopes to open the museum before the end of the year. His idea for a community center is generally supported by the city's elected officials and Haitian leaders. However, some people worry that a Haitian center and a museum would act as a magnet, drawing a large number of new immigrants to the city. The last wave, about a decade ago, created a housing shortage, forcing many people into crowded and illegal conditions, said Delray Beach Mayor-elect David Schmidt. Currently, services for the almost 13,000 Haitians in the city are mostly in social services, English-language programs and employment training. The Haitian American Community Council on Southeast Second Street offers family counseling and immigration and housing assistance. The Center for Minority Human Services on West Atlantic Avenue offers computer technology, refrigerator maintenance and other employment training courses. "There's room for everyone here," said Daniella Henry, executive director of the Haitian American Community Council. "There's a lot of needs, and one agency isn't enough." Bernadel's center would go further by offering immigrants the skills to gain higher-paying jobs in fields such as construction and postal delivery, he said. He also would change the way language skills are taught. Bernadel said there needs to be an emphasis on literacy, first in their native Creole language, then in English. Sunday-Joseph Otengho, a Palm Beach County School District administrator who specializes in multicultural affairs, said the proposed center is definitely needed in the community. His only issue is that, instead of teaching illiterate Haitians to read and write in Creole first, they should learn the basics of English to better function in society. Afterward, they can always go back and learn to read and write in their native language, he said. "They need skills to survive at first," he said. City officials urge Bernadel to discuss the center with them and other Haitians to make sure the community truly needs another agency. "If the intent of this is to educate and acclimate the recent immigrants, then it's a good concept," outgoing Mayor Jay Alperin said. "But let's discuss it and plan it." Bernadel said he needs to raise at least $400,000 to open the building and another $300,000 annually for the operating budget, which would include paying a director and four staff members. Bernadel said he's in discussions with a private foundation to receive $350,000, but he would not divulge details of those talks. The rest of the money, he said, would come from public grants. Once the plans are solidified, Bernadel said, he hopes to get the city involved. He said he doesn't intend for the center to attract hundreds of newcomers to Delray Beach. His main objective is to improve the lives and conditions for the existing residents. "There's a pervasive sense that the Haitian people haven't been treated with a sense of fair play," Bernadel said. "We don't expect special privileges, but just an opportunity to serve."

Copyright © Sun Sentinel, 2000


Published: March 8, 2000

Joseph Bernadel is a retired military man specializing in "subterfuge." "Subterfuge means using the arts to bring people together who might not otherwise rub shoulders," he said. "It's a way to build community." "Joe has a very unique background, from his upbringing in Haiti to his military career," said Kenneth Aguon, senior vice president of World Savings and Loan. He's the definition of multitasking. He truly functions in 20 different capacities, 24 hours a day. He's extremely articulate, and when he meets people with needs, they become his needs."

Copyright © Palm Beach Newspapers, Inc., 2000


The National Haitian Coalition is represented at the Hispanic Alliance press conference, held on March 25 and will participate in the Summit, to be held fall of 2000.

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