The Freedom & Virtue Institute focuses on breaking the cycle of dependency
by Don Long
Twelve years ago, Ismael Hernandez returned to his birthplace in Puerto Rico for his father’s funeral. Draped over the casket was a red flag, the flag of Puerto Rico’s communist party, representing his father’s lifelong philosophy and a set of values he had passed to his son.
Under the influence of his father, young Ismael had accepted his parent’s views – that American and its capitalistic ways were the source of all evil – and he, too, joined the communist party.
But as his life developed, Hernandez took a different route, one that brought him first to America and then to new ways of thinking about human motivation, failure and success. That led him in 2009 to founding the Freedom & Virtue Institute in Fort Myers, a center focused on ideas far different than his father’s.
“One day I simply woke up realizing that I had become what I had always hated, a lover of freedom and a believer in ‘the American way,’” Hernandez recalls.
As a teen, a mentor had encouraged Hernandez to travel to America to attend the University of Southern Mississippi. At first, he assumed he could undermine America’s “evil empire” with his father’s ideas. But that belief was quickly undercut by the encouragement he received in his classes and the attention he received as a successful student.
He began, he says, “to inhale the fresh air of true freedom.”
In his book “Not Tragically Colored,” which is part memoir and part economic analysis, Hernandez describes his journey. At the university, “experience after experience and book after book shattered the preconceived notions about America and capitalism that formed the basis of my worldview,” he writes.
After earning a master’s degree in political science, his journey to new ideas continued. He was hired as executive director of the African Caribbean American Catholic Center (ACACC) in Fort Myers, an organization focused on assistance to the impoverished.
There, over time, Hernandez became disillusioned by the organization’s model of aid – “handing out stuff” to families and then, only a few years later, seeing their children return for the very same handouts. It was, he says, “the same-old, same-old” type of help that didn’t generate long-term improvement in people’s lives.
Despite resistance, even criticism of his ideas, he worked to change the organization’s approach. Finally, he decided to move on, establishing the Freedom & Virtue Institute “for the purpose of mobilizing people” and to instill in them the importance of personal incentive and fulfilling work.
As explanation of the institute’s name, Hernandez notes that in the Greek, “virtue” is not a term of morality but means “excellence of all kinds.” And he argues that for a person to be successful and to contribute to society, freedom and excellence are inextricable.
The poor and jobless can find neither of these if they are dependent on government or other standard models of help, he says. Those methods too often rely on repeated handouts, creating the assumption that assistance ought to continue and eroding individual initiative, he adds.
“There’s a role for government of course,” Hernandez says, “but that role has to be limited.”
Hernandez is not subtle about describing the cycle of dependency, especially in young people. It means being “enslaved to government,” creating a sense of “entitlement” and (most bluntly of all) putting the young in “shackles.”
In simplest terms, he adheres to the maxim that teaching a person how to fish is far better than day after day providing a fish. Such assistance destroys self-sufficiency and destroys the virtue – or excellence – achieved through meaningful work.
The institute’s purpose is to reverse this trend, promoting the “art of fishing” by emphasizing the importance of work and producing something beyond oneself. The goal is to create an entrepreneurial spirit that leads to success and creates wealth.
The institute pursues its goal with three programs: the Dignity of Work Initiative and Effective Compassion Training, both church-based, and Self-Reliance Clubs in schools. Each program has specific strategies to break the cycle of dependency through fulfilling work.
The Dignity of Work Initiative
This program is for churches already targeting the problem of joblessness. It focuses on teaching the basics skills needed for finding a job, utilizing an existing national workforce-training program called Jobs for Life.
In addition to offering a curriculum, Jobs for Life calls on a network of volunteers that use biblically based training and mentoring relationships. The emphasis is on helping the jobless find not just any job, but “meaningful employment.”
Effective Compassion Training
Effective Compassion Training is also based in churches, but seems to beg the question, “Why should a church need training in compassion?”
The answer, Hernandez says, is that churches usually replicate the government’s model for assistance, providing money and other resources but not the tools that can lift the poor out of dependency.
This program emphasizes communication and connection with the individual as a unique person, not just a statistic in a general population of the unemployed. It stresses the importance of finding a job or, at the very least, an active role as a volunteer.
Hernandez trains church members in this strategy, sometimes just improving or just “tweaking” a program they already have. His training visits outside Florida include trips to Indianapolis, Indiana and Austin, Texas.
Self-Reliance Clubs focus on developing a job-like situation at a school. The students must put in at least 40 hours of effort to receive payment for their work, thereby making the connection between work and compensation. Students also sign up for a savings account, and visit a bank at the end of the year.
Beyond just earning money, the clubs emphasize how the work a person does can also benefit others.
Valerie Halley-Moore, a teacher advising the Self-Reliance Club at Bonita Springs Charter School, says that her students created a vegetable garden on a small plot of available school property. The project is not only educational but also gives the students a sense of ownership and an understanding of how the garden can benefit others. The project also validates a school-wide emphasis on leadership, she says.
With a great deal of land available to them in Cape Coral for a large garden, students in the Trafalgar Middle School club worked on expanding it – really expanding it. At the end of this past school year they harvested more than 8,600 pounds of vegetables and donated them to the school and food kitchens.
Al Piotter, club advisor at Trafalgar, says that paying students for their work was initially a “tough sell” for him, so he structured the program as an entirely volunteer effort. But students who put in 40 hours received payment at year-end as a special surprise.
Barbara Scarnato, advisor for the Self-Reliance Club at the Sanibel School, is concerned about dependency not just among the needy, but also among who have much given to them. She fears that young people in affluent homes may not develop the initiative needed for the future or grasp the importance of service to others.
Sanibel School students are very much “nature oriented,” she says, and so they built a butterfly garden including benches and pavers, emphasizing enjoyment for the students and visitors and demonstrating how similar efforts could benefit other areas of the island.
Dr. Mark Wardell, program director for the Self-Reliance Clubs, says that at the end of the year members of the clubs go on a field trip to a bank, where they receive a tour and an introduction to a variety of basic economic principles. Those include budgeting, the importance of spending choices, and the difference between “wants and needs.”
He says the students are introduced to three priorities in the use of money: spending, saving and philanthropy. The goal is to build good character and to instill “a selflessness component.” Club members, he hopes, will carry this training into the future to help their fellow humans to flourish.
The Institute has established Self-Reliance Clubs in eight area schools to date. Networking puts Wardell in touch with principals and teachers interested in the program, and he projects having at least 20 clubs in the next school year.
Hernandez says that the Self-Reliance Clubs are intended to be “engines of wealth creation” by showing kids that they can change their lives through work. He hopes these clubs – in a franchise model – will be replicated in other areas around the country.
In his book, Hernandez states that dependence on government has become a substitute for “the strenuous effort that once led toward virtue.” Battling the path to dependence is the central work of the Freedom & Virtue Institute.
“In a country of taken-for-granted wealth, there is need to cultivate our spirit, exercise the virtue of gratitude, mobilize ourselves toward productive effort, and refuse the strong pull of victimization,” he says.
The institute is always looking for volunteers to assist with its programming. If interested, visit the website at www.fvinstitute.org or call 239-993-7785.