About the Empowerment Zone Reentry Initiative "EZRI"

The Empowerment Zone Reentry Initiative is a 501c3 nonprofit organization (EIN 86-2855642). Our mission includes collaborating to provide employment, mental health counseling and case management services, reducing recidivism among previously incarcerated people, and focusing on individual strengths, human dignity, and the right to self-determination.

Since we began providing services in July of 2022, EZRI has been providing counseling and case management on site. Located in the heart of Overtown but serving all justice-involved men and women returning to Miami-Dade, we provide a lifeline by breaking down barriers, providing opportunities and supporting the creation of an action plan for their future. In doing so, we are increasing the mental wellbeing and safety of families and communities and reducing the chances of recidivism.

Our goal is to remain engaged with our participants as they deal with the challenges of transitioning from prison/jail to family, community, and employment. Although we focus on providing services to justice-involved persons, no one is turned away who comes to the office for assistance. We are pleased that we are a part of the Overtown community. Our service goals for our first year have been exceeded in both mental health counseling and case management. Our accomplishments have been impactful, and we are building on that initial momentum.

As a new agency, established during the COVID-19 pandemic, our efforts to raise the necessary funding has been difficult, but we are hopeful that our impact on the community during this first year will propel us forward. The Empowerment Zone Reentry Initiative is a newly established non-profit, but its founders have decades of experience. We are three women (one Caucasian, one Black and one Latina) with degrees and extensive experience in social work, mental health counseling and case management, who personally represent and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion.

All have had the experience of working with inmates and the reentry community, founding the agency because of our passion and commitment to the re-entry community. Additionally, we have relationships with NOVA Southeastern University Mental Health Counseling Program and the Florida International University School of Social Work through which we supervise interns in their programs. Currently, we have two interns from each university who are benefitting from exposure to different cultures and learning to address issues specific to the formerly incarcerated, homeless and low-income communities.

Get to Know the Faces behind Empowerment Zone Re-entry Initiative Empowerment Zone Re-entry Initiative is very proud of the expertise of our staff and their abilities to contribute their own unique experience and skills to our success.


Cherry Smart

CSW, Co-Founder and Executive Director

Cherry Smart, LCSW, is a graduate of Michigan State University School of Social Work, with 55 years of social work experience, 30 of those in Miami-Dade. She was a founder and program director of the Thelma Gibson Health Initiative, Coordinator of Health Care for Homeless Veterans for the VA, substance abuse counselor for Concept House treatment center, was a prison social worker for 6 years in Michigan and provided mental health counseling at the Dade Correctional Institution Mental Health Unit in 2018/2019. She has decades of experience in community organization and outreach, substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling and family and children’s services. Her belief is that all are capable of change when provided with information, support for mental wellbeing and intense advocacy.

Shamekia Gray-Lester

MSW, Co-Founder and Social Worker/Therapist

With us since our founding, Shamekia is one of our veteran team members and has played a critical role in shaping our mission and projects. They bring their years of experience and skills in helping Empowerment Zone Re-entry Initiative grow and make a measurable impact. Shamekia discovered her calling while helping inmates with mental health issues and this became her passion. Her goal is to stop recidivism, by providing adequate resources and help recenter individuals to become productive members in their communities.

Maria-Paula Herrera

MSW, Co-Founder and Social Worker/Therapist

Maria-Paula joined Empowerment Zone Re-entry Initiative with the vision and drive to improve our Non-Profit Organization and make our name synonymous with social change and human betterment. Paula is passionate about creating opportunity for every individual despite history or background. She believes in empowering people and helping individuals grow from their experiences so they can have a chance to succeed and prosper.