23 Feb INVESTING IN BLACK MIAMI’S LEGACY: KEITH WARD’S STORY
Keith T. Ward is founder of Quality Management North America, Inc. a real-estate investment and management firm. Today, he serves as chair of Our Kids, a nonprofit that creates safe havens for Miami-Dade’s and Monroe County’s children through foster care and adoptions, and dedicates his philanthropy to creating opportunities for youth in the neighborhoods where he grew up. He shared his Miami story.
My Miami story is a story about home, coming home and improving those sections of my hometown that weren’t so nice to live in – and making them better.
My mother’s relatives came here from an island in the Bahamas called Rum Cay, which is about nine miles long, five miles wide. They were hardworking, industrious people who came to the United States looking for opportunity, and found it in Miami. My family was among Greater Miami’s earliest settlers. My maternal grandmother is buried at the Lincoln Park Memorial Center. If you have ancestors in Miami and are black, you likely have relatives buried there, too. I remember my mother, aunts and uncle making it their business to tend to her grave, but I never paid much attention to it, until now. After seeing a story about how the cemetery had fallen into disrepair, I decided to put my support behind efforts to revitalize it.
When my family arrived here, they moved to Overtown and then, when the expressway came through, moved to Buena Vista, Liberty City and West Little River. We went to church in Overtown. After Sunday school, my grandfather would take us to Watson Island where I would look out at the Miami skyline and skip rocks in the channel. That skyline always mesmerized me. I grew fond of those neighborhoods. I went to undergraduate school in Gainesville, then law school in Massachusetts and, after graduation, worked at a real estate development firm in Boston. I had a choice. I did not have to come home, I chose to come home. Home is what I knew. The firm taught me how to manage and finance buildings, and I wanted to do that in my town.
I came back to Miami and convinced my parents to loan me money so I could buy my first apartment building. I bought a building in a tough part of the city, where I was the rent man, the carpenter, the electrician and the janitor. What you discover in managing properties is that the brick and mortar is the easy part. You can keep the plumbing working, but managing people is the hard part. It’s about making sure that everyone is a good neighbor. That means you become a part of people’s lives. You watch their children become young adults. As we saw their kids grow up, we began to understand that they needed more than they were getting. I was fortunate. I had a mother and a father and extended family. All of my first cousins and I went to college. I took it for granted. But when I started working in the community, I discovered that people needed more.
I want kids to have every opportunity I did. I want them to have a good foundation. Education is the source that life is built upon, and it is more than just school. I was not only a good student, I was drum major of the band, which is where I learned valuable leadership lessons. Whether ballet dancing, sports or science, I want the kids that are growing up in the neighborhoods where I did to take part in first-rate programs. I want them to experience what else is out there beyond the neighborhood, so they can have something to dream about.
I learned philanthropy from my parents and my aunts and uncle. They didn’t consider themselves philanthropists. They were church-going people and did their philanthropy through the church. When my father passed, I found out from the minister that he had helped the church buy its public announcement system, among other items. I had no idea. My mother was the same way. I started a Fund at The Miami Foundation years ago not knowing how or where to give back. As I looked for places and people to give money to, I quickly learned that money wasn’t everything. Part of the challenge was also finding organizations that could execute, and do so in places where I wanted to make a difference. I’ve come to depend on the Foundation to help me do this. My parents, aunts and uncle, made opportunities available to me growing up. I am honored to follow in their footsteps and carry forward their legacy.
Keith T. Ward is a donor at The Miami Foundation