MIAMI (CBSMiami) - An after-school program supported by the Hialeah Parks and Recreation Department designed to help students attain their community service hours is doing more than just that.
"I love seeing them walk up to the stage and getting their certificates. It makes me even more happy to see that their parents have a smile on their faces and it makes happy to know that they did something good for the community and for themselves as well," said Ernesto Soto.
Soto is the lead coordinator for the Early Prevention and Intervention program (EPI). He recently attended a graduation ceremony for a new class of students who had completed the eight-week program.
Since 1992, EPI has been the go-to place for thousands of students from Hialeah to take part in activities and have a safe haven after school.
"It's a great way to interact with other people and it brings you out of your shell, it's really great," said 17-year-old Andrew Fernandez. "I've learned so many things, they teach you about bullying, the importance of doing good in school, basic stuff."
During the program, students are assigned to one of 15 parks around the city. They assist personnel with various jobs around the park including assisting park visitors, office duties, and picking up trash.
"We are really there to help the personnel with what they need," sad 14-year-old Sofia Cruz, a recent grad of the program. "Each class is a different topic, healthy eating, human trafficking, it's all the stuff you don't think you need but then once you have learned about it, you are like 'wow, this is really good'. It brings you a new perspective on everything."
In addition to the classes, field trips, and hands-on experience, there is one more special touch.
"My biggest mentor is Ernie, I can always text or ask him anything, he always tries to give you the best advice," said Cruz. "He always tells us to aim high and do good with ourselves. If I'm ever feeling down or alone I can talk to him. I trust him completely, I can trust him with all my problems, I know he will always have my back."
Soto, who calls himself a park rat from the day he used to hang out in the parks when he was younger, said he loves mentoring teenagers.
"I talk to them about the honor code, respecting women, being considerate to others, just stand up for themselves and have a voice. It's advice they can take into the future," he said. "My favorites part of the program is the kids. I love presenting to them, especially bullying. It's an epidemic, it's something I want them to be aware. I love teaching."
As one class moves on, Soto prepares for the next semester and remains focused on the need in his community.
"I think a lot of children are in need of good mentors, a lot like the employees we have at this facility, they are good mentors and we can't have enough of that. I do one day want to have these kids become mentors to the younger children as well. That's what we do here, we teach them to give back to the community."
Students who graduate the eight-week course are welcome to return and take more courses with EPI throughout the year. Soto said it's a great training ground for them to be considered for part-time positions with the city's parks.
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