If the maxim “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” is accurate, there may be no better Southwest Florida example than the Quality Life Center under the stewardship of founder Abdul‘Haq Muhammed.
The Fort Myers nonprofit organization began in November 1990 with eight students and has grown to serve 140 children and families in its 16,400 square-foot space. Its expansion, however, did not come without pains associated with a nonprofit: wondering where the next grant would come from or how to find a sustainable income source.
During lean times, employees were offered the option of finding other jobs and would go without pay for up to 120 days with the center covering light and water bills and rent payments.
“It was as though we’re at the bottom of the sea with one oxygen tank and we’re going to share until we get to the top,” Muhammed says. “And that’s exactly what we did.”
More than once, in the ’90s and then most recently in 2013, the Center faced financial distress. The latter involved an impending foreclosure avoided through raising $1 million with the help of FineMark Bank and Fifth Third Bank. That effort was buoyed by former basketball star Magic Johnson, who had met Muhammed through a mutual childhood friend. At a press conference, Johnson donated $100,000.
“That visibility helped the cause a great deal,” says Muhammed, who was able to re-pay employees. “That’s how largely we were able to retain our staff, a combination of that level of sacrifice and generating a million [dollars] is what got us through.”
Finding quality employees motivated by a sense of purpose helped, the 68-year-old says, but he is cognizant of the significant role money plays in retaining them. It’s a lesson he learned while buying and selling New York City properties in the late 1980s when coworkers jokingly yet accurately affixed a sobriquet to him that would foretell his efforts later in life: the social worker.
He chuckles as he recalls the nickname given because of his larger focus. It remained relevant once he relocated to Southwest Florida.
“When I came down here, I largely had in mind to acquire property and invest and turn a profit,” he says. “But at the core, even when I was doing real estate in New York, my coworkers would call me the ‘social worker’ because I’ve always discussed strategies and ways of helping people.”
The Harlem native’s social consciousness was honed when, after serving in the Army and attending college, he co-founded Bronx’s Woodycrest Center for Human Development. Watching a local Fort Myers news program here years later prodded him to act again.
“The optic I saw on the evening news was African-American young men and heads guided into police cruisers for various alleged illegal activities,” he says. “That was a regular visual on the evening news and that stimulated in my heart the work that I’ve done.”
Many the center serve are from Dunbar and other underserved, poor neighborhoods. As courses in martial arts morphed into dance and drama, youthful confidence grows and youngsters’ self esteem skyrockets.
Children disembarking from school buses are asked about their day and welcomed into a loving atmosphere. And each day kids from 2 to 18 years old meditate to develop an inner consciousness and learn the power of quiet within. Muhammed’s own multi-faith background—he was Methodist, Baptist and Episcopalian before living as a Buddhist and then embracing Islam—is reflected in the center’s approach.
“It has to do with a foundation of religious values and humanity and connectiveness to a higher force,” he says. “My views about the world and humanity is broad and its interfaith experience that all centers around valuing the human being and how to transform lives.”