DRIVEN BY HIS UPBRINGING AND THE EXAMPLE OF HIS MOTHER, A VIETNAM VETERAN HAS SPENT MANY YEARS HELPING TO MAKE LIFE A BIT EASIER FOR THE LESS FORTUNATE
BY MAMIE WARD
As Alvin W. Roberts leans back casually in a chair in the conference room of
the Center for Independent Living of South Florida, it’s hard to imagine that behind his calm demeanor there is a decorated military veteran, an advocate for the rights of veterans and people with disabilities, a community leader, a volunteer for homeless causes and youth organizations.
‘I always put my feet in others’ shoes because I never know when I would
have to walk in those shoes,” said Roberts, 59, a resident of Allapattah.
“If I did, I would want someone to help me.”
Roberts grew up in the Liberty Square housing complex and watched his
mother, Emerald Roberts, struggle through life.
”She worked two jobs to support five kids all by herself — two of her own
and three she took on after my aunt died at child birth,” he said. “I saw
her work hard to make ends meet and it really triggered me to follow in her
footsteps, to help others who can’t help themselves.
”I respect my roots and my mother who helped guide me to where I am
today,” Roberts said.
Roberts speaks proudly of his graduation with honors in 1964 from
Northwestern High School in Liberty City. He started college at Florida A&M
University in Tallahassee but took time off to help his mother. He
subsequently graduated from Miami Dade College with an associate’s degree in
Hotel/Motel Management and became the first African-American front office
manager at the Doral Hotel and Country Club.
Roberts’ more than 30 years of dedication to veterans and to the community
earned him his most recent recognition, as the state’s Vietnam Veteran
Member of the Year for 2005. The award was presented to Roberts in Daytona
by the Vietnam Veterans of America Florida State Council in December 2005.
”I felt so honored to receive such a prestigious award,” he said.
Kelly Greene, his mentor and friend since the early 1980s, said the award is
just one more well-deserved tribute to Roberts.
”He has invested his whole life to giving to his community,” said Greene,
executive director of the Center for Independent Living (CIL), 6660 Biscayne
Blvd., in downtown Miami. “He doesn’t shrink back from a challenge; he is a
caring individual and always puts his best forward.”
Greene got to know Roberts while he was a member of Big Brothers/Big Sisters
”He was the best,” Greene said. “He was always willing to take on another
brother and give support.”
Roberts’ work as a Big Brother made him Greene’s top choice when she was
searching for a president for the CIL board.
”We really needed a strong leader,” she said. “Thanks to Alvin’s
leadership, we have our own building and serve about 100 people a day, with
all types of disabilities.”
CIL is a nonprofit organization that, for 10 years, has been helping people
with disabilities live independently by providing them access to computer
skills, increasing literacy, reducing isolation, offering peer support,
health and financial educatio, and addressing issues of housing, food,
transportation, and benefits.
Roberts led the growth of the center from a one-room rented office to a $2
million facility and an increase in the annual budget from $50,000 to $2
million. CIL also has branches in North Miami Beach and South Miami-Dade.
Roberts’ community leadership has touched many other organizations, winning
him a long list of honors and recognition for his community service and his
efforts to help fellow veterans. He is employed at the Miami VA Medical
Center as a medical support assistant.
He has been nominated for the Federal Employee of the Year Award in the
Service to Community category, which will be presented to winner at the 41st
annual awards ceremony on Friday. Roberts won the award in 1992 in the
administrative category and in 2000 in the community service category.
Just as Roberts has made a difference in organizations he has served, so too
has he made a difference for people whose lives he has touched.
Thomas Yarosz, a fellow Vietnam veteran and Roberts’ chief of staff at the
VFW Liberty Post No. 11055, said Roberts has been like a brother him.
”He took me in when I had no place to go,” Yarosz said. “Alvin stepped in
and really helped me. His mother took me in during the 1970s like one of her
own and he helped me find employment.”
There are many veterans like Yarosz who may need assistance and have nowhere
to go, Roberts said.
”There are a lot of services not provided for veterans and someone has to
step up to the plate,” he said, citing veterans returning from Iraq as one
example. “These are very young people like I was and they are coming home
blown up, with physical defects or in coffins.”
Through his job at the VA Medical Center, Roberts said, he gives a lot of
advice and mentors the Iraq veterans. And his Vietnam Veterans of America
chapter collects and sends care packages abroad.
”It’s a brotherhood and it always will be,” he said. That brotherhood is
what drives Roberts to take on many tasks as a volunteer, symbolized by the
Marine Corps ring on his finger and the tiny red cross on the left lapel of
the tan linen suit he wore recently.
”I always wanted to be a Marine and I was proud to accomplish that,” said
Roberts, who enlisted in 1965 and was honorably discharged as a sergeant in
Roberts has remained active in his church, Ebenezer United Methodist, 2001
NW 35th St., helping with projects such as Twelve Steps of Exodus, a
rehabilitation program for veterans with alcohol and drug addictions, the
Health and Wellness ministry, visiting nursing homes, and singing in the
His busy schedule hasn’t left much room for a break but when he does get a
few moments of down time, he’s either at the church, volunteering to help
the homeless or coming up with new ideas. ”When I complete one thing, the
bulb comes on for another project,” he said.
Roberts’ latest endeavor is with the South Florida Workforce Investment
Board to which he was appointed by the then county Mayor Alex Penelas to
represent the veterans population in hopes of integrating programs for
veterans with the CIL.
”Every time I can assist a veteran in need and everything works out, it
gives me the get-up-and-go to continue,” Roberts said. “You just don’t
stop at one; you keep going.