A new Key Club leadership program offers a hands-on laboratory for service.

Story and photos by Curtis Billue

Miami sparkles like a kaleidoscope of colorful cultures and heritages. Every turn of the palm-tree-lined streets reflects the people and their history, from the bright shops of Little Havana to the ornate Art Deco buildings and the many vibrant murals tucked away in neighborhoods.

Against this sunny backdrop, Key Clubbers discover new perspectives at Breakthrough, the organization’s first-ever service immersion program.


Launched this year, Breakthrough uniquely combines camp, service, education, cultural immersion and reflection. Matthew Nance, leadership development specialist at Kiwanis International, says “Breakthrough is a new experience for Key Club members who otherwise wouldn’t have a relationship to the international organization.

“There is a nomination process by Key Club advisors; however, this selection isn’t based solely on Key Club experience. We’re targeting a population that we aren’t attracting to other roles or experiences.”

Key Clubbers gain behind-the-scenes access to community leaders with stories to tell. One moment they’re learning about running a nonprofit at Miami Children’s Museum, then meeting officials from Miami City Hall to hear about the city’s Cuban history and educational needs, and then learning about social rights for migrant farmers at Centro Campesino Farmworker Center Inc.


After hearing leaders in nonprofit and government roles talk about service and the needs of the community, some Breakthrough attendees can envision themselves in a service-focused job. “Service doesn’t have to be a hobby. It can be a career,” says Lauren Robinson.

“So much of leadership these days is taught in a classroom and with a book,” says Breakthrough founder John Shertzer, chief programs officer at Kiwanis International. “Breakthrough is a hands-on leadership laboratory by which Key Clubbers can see firsthand the innovation, commitment and hard work that real-life leadership requires.”

At Chapman Partnership, a homeless center for families, the Breakthrough crew works hard, washing dishes, cleaning and organizing donated items, preparing food to serve and playing with kids who live at the center. Jared Dutko connects with both the children and the older kids there. He listens to their hopes and dreams and shares similar stories about being bullied. “We are equal to them,” he says, “and they are equal to us.”

Inside a senior center run by Centro Campesino, Gabi Lirio calls out in Spanish, “O setenta y cinco. O-75.” A senior citizen yells “BINGO!” as she points to Dutko’s BINGO card. She raises his arm up in triumph as her new partner scores a win. Amidst the groans and laughter, there are smiles all around the tables.


After each service site visit, students return to the camp center to reflect and discuss larger ideas. Be humble in your approach. Charity goes beyond a self-serving handout; it’s a relationship based on listening to the needs of others. The activities and insightful exchanges challenge their notions of what it means to serve.

“I was inspired to become someone I never thought I could be,” says Jennifer Fan.

The passenger van pulls up to the next service site. Music pulses inside the van’s closed doors, and many of the Key Clubbers are singing at the top of their lungs. Just a week ago they were strangers, unsure of what was to come, but now there’s a feeling of family. A family that laughs together and sings together.

At The WOW Center, a training facility for adults with disabilities, Breakthrough students and Aktion club members work side-by-side cleaning and painting the lot with bright greens and whites. Some of the Key Clubbers and Aktion clubbers take long laps around the neighboring park as they get to know each other. On the court, a party atmosphere emerges as a basketball team from Puerto Rico plays an exhibition game with fellow members.


“Key Clubbers have been great. They’ve helped us out, worked with our individuals and shown friendship,” says Barbara Wach, Life and Work Skills program instructor and Aktion Club advisor.

As a whole, the first group of Breakthrough students did indeed break language and lifestyle barriers between the many different cultures of Miami.

Whether it was touring Little Havana or enjoying a night of authentic cuisine, learning about the Cuban culture was an important part of the trip. Breakthrough introduced these lucky Key Club members to a variety of new people and experiences while simultaneously proving that service leadership can be both fun and meaningful.

“Breakthrough gave me such a different perspective about the world,” says Eileen Kim.  Alexis Warren agrees. “I didn’t expect this to happen, but this is my favorite event I’ve ever been to.”

With the hearts to serve, this class of students will have more tools to engage with their respective communities and lead projects that make a difference in the lives of others.

Near the end of camp, Dutko takes time to record some reflections. “The service projects felt handpicked for me. I took away deep personal connections at each service site, built relationships with each other,” he says.

Adds Jadon Flanders, “Breakthrough has 10 billion percent changed my life for the better.”

Dutko agrees that he’s been changed as well. “I’ve never felt more connected to my own service than I have on this one immersion trip,” he says. “Breakthrough was one of the best weeks of my life.”


Breakthrough starts the first week of January and is made possible through a Youth Opportunities Fund grant from the Kiwanis Children’s Fund. For more information:

This story originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of Kiwanis magazine.


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