Expanding Imaginations

Maria Virginia Dinnella-Borrego | Communications Specialist
Belen Jesuit students are often distinguished by their ability to be creative in the face of adversity. A great example of this is  an innovative program fostered by Manuel Rodriguez-Lapido '21--the Miami Media Outreach (MMO). In a time when many extra-curricular programs have stayed virtual, the MMO program stands out for its continuing commitment to hands-on learning for underprivileged children in urban Miami. 

When Rodriguez-Lapido was thinking about starting his own service project, he drew, not only on the work he had previously done at Belen, but he was also inspired by his own love for media, journalism, and filmmaking. He wanted to share the joy he felt creating multimedia and audiovisual projects with children in communities that did not normally have access to digital media classes. 

Using these ideas, he piloted MMO in 2019 at Centro Mater, a not-for-profit organization that provides early childhood education and social services to low-income families. His first program taught 3rd-5th graders the basic concepts of photography, film creation, story development, and other topics related to technical skills and journalism.

Soon, these children found their own unique voices, much as Rodriguez-Lapido had done when he started the project:  "What surprised me most about the children was how eager they were to learn hands-on stuff. Whenever we gave them the freedom to use the cameras or record their own pieces, they always got super excited," he said of the initial students in MMO’s first class.

The program continued to grow when it received an unexpected source of support in the form of Yannet Amador. At the time, Amador was the curriculum specialist at Centro Mater. She transitioned to the Leadership Learning Center at St. John Bosco in Little Havana, which provided MMO with the opportunity to expand its reach to middle and high school students. 

In the face of lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Rodriguez-Lapido has not backed down from his mission to reach out to underprivileged children. He joined the virtual programs in order to stay connected and continue to recruit new students. Today, the students at Centro Mater and St. John Bosco both online and in-person continue to craft stories that will expand their imaginations and unfold new career paths for them in the future.

In many ways, the growth of the program has paralleled Rodriguez-Lapido’s own growth and maturity as an individual. He is not only learning to be more creative but has risen to become a budding leader in his community. He remains, first a foremost, however, a mentor to children  like one little energetic boy named Steven: "He was always bringing these crazy ideas for stories up, but he would get really unmotivated when we couldn't do what he wanted to do. Eventually, we were able to create a balance where he could express his eccentric ideas and still work cohesively with the rest of the group."

For her part, Yannet Amador is grateful for the work Rodriguez-Lapido and his team are doing to reach out to over 50 children from diverse social and economic backgrounds: "Programs like this are not accessible to the children in our community. Through the implementation of these classes, students are open to an array of opportunities exposing them to new skills, discovering new career paths, and integrating with others through teamwork to empower the children of the Little Havana Community."
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Belen Jesuit Preparatory School was founded in 1854 in Havana, Cuba by Queen Isabel II of Spain.  The task of educating students was assigned to the priests and brothers of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), whose teaching tradition is synonymous with academic excellence and spiritual discipline.  In 1961, the new political regime of Cuba confiscated the School property and expelled the Jesuit faculty.  The School was re-established in Miami the same year, and over the next decade, continued to grow.  Today, Belen Jesuit sits on a 30-acre site in western Dade County, only minutes away from downtown Miami.