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His Calling Is Keeping Kids Out Of Trouble

Pastor reaches out with his South Dade youth center and his church.


12 November 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 

Manuel Cruz often looks at the teens that come to the outreach center he started 14 years ago in South Dade and he sees a little of himself.

``I could have been just like them. I know what it's like to grow up without a father.''

Cruz began to gather the teens in the area who had no place to go after school. He provided activities for them -- sports, tutoring, music and bible classes. He organized outings such as camping trips and activities like talent shows and multi-cultural nights to share their Latin heritage and culture. After Hurricane Andrew ripped through the area, there was even greater need for his center.

''I designed the activities to work at night and on weekends. That's when kids tend to get in trouble,'' he says.


He strongly believes young people need a place where they can belong, a place where they can be themselves without any pretenses and where they can feel welcome.

What started out as 10 kids now caters to about 60 kids. In September, Cruz's Youth in Action Outreach Center received Gov. Jeb Bush's Points of Light award, which recognizes Floridians for their community service.

''I'm a motivator,'' says Cruz. ``I believe I'm here for a purpose -- to leave this place better than I found it.''

Cruz, 55, reaches out to the members of his congregation, Iglesia Casa de Adoracion in Naranja, to provide guidance and tutoring for the teens.

Cruz says his best leaders and recruiters are the kids themselves.

One of them, Elvis Maldonado, was a well-known gang leader in Homestead when he first attended a Sunday service at Cruz's church.

''If I led them into bad, why not lead them into good,'' says Maldonado, who worked to convince many of his old gang members to join the church and the activities at the youth center.

That fateful Sunday Maldonado, then 17, came only to appease a persistent neighbor who thought he needed to be saved.

''I thought I had nothing to lose, except a couple of hours out of my day,'' he says looking back now.

But listening to ''Pastor Manny,'' as the congregation calls Cruz , preach that day, Maldonado found himself. ``I felt he was talking directly to me. I was home.''

He credits having the church and youth center as the factors that got him off the streets. It was painful, he says, to see the lives of several friends cut short by crime and drugs.

``Pastor Manny imparted his vision. He taught us about having a plan, about having goals.''

Maldonado went from being a ''D'' student with little chance of finishing high school to graduating. He went into technical school to study computer networking and programming. Today, he's 31, married and has two daughters, ages 3 and 5.

The youth center is still part of his world. Maldonado regularly volunteers there, working with teens from a new generation.

The pastor still is a source of inspiration and motivation.

Cruz says his own motivation comes from a higher source: ``I think my Lord motivates me.''

Starting a church and ministering to the youth in his community was not the initial career path Cruz chose.

Yet, his own personal experience prepared for his later calling.

His father, a U.S. Army sergeant, was murdered by a disgruntled soldier in his unit while the family was stationed in Germany. Four days after his father's death, Cruz, his mother and three younger brothers were moved back to their native Puerto Rico. Cruz, who was 15 at the time, credits his mother for keeping the family together.


``The Army took care of us. We had a pension. We went to school on the GI bill. But it was hard. For a while, I believed it was a nightmare. But as the days went by, I realized I wouldn't see my father anymore.''

He finished college with a degree in business administration and started working in the hotel industry in California.

In the late 1970s, he came to South Florida with a company that was betting on a major hotel expansion in Miami Beach if gambling was allowed. The gambling measure didn't pass, but Cruz decided to stay here working with several hotels.

But in early 1980s, he heard the calling. He attended Logos Bible Institute in Houston, Texas. Initially, Cruz began working with migrant workers in Homestead, helping out with food drives and counseling. He began his church in 1984. A decade later, the congregation purchased a three-acre site, with two buildings to serve as community center and sanctuary on Southwest 137th Avenue.

Maintaining the center is a constant struggle for funding, says Carmen Melendez, another pastor at the church. She often helps out by writing grant applications for the center.

Despite support from the congregation, Cruz would like to have additional funds to expand tutoring programs and be able to service more kids.

The center is a family affair for Cruz. His wife and his two daughters, ages 30 and 29, put in volunteer time, as does one son-in-law.

'You can't do this if you don't have `the burn' -- the genuine desire to help,'' says Cruz. ``The kids will see right through you.''

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