Meet our Dreamers
Dreamer, Chelsea-Elliott I
Zairia Benjamin says “I Have A Dream” - New York was there for her when she needed it most.
Her family was displaced from their Chelsea apartment, was left homeless, and sought refuge in a shelter in Brownsville, Brooklyn. She was 12 years old, and had been achieving better grades since enrolling in "I Have A Dream" - New York’s Chelsea-Elliott I program. "I Have A Dream" was a lifeline.
“The program was monumental for me,” she says. “They sent me letters, making sure I was aware of what was going on in Chelsea, even if I did not have an opportunity to travel in to the program. When I did travel to one of their events, they always made sure I got home safely.”
She recalls several of her 90 Chelsea-Elliott I peers leaving the program when their families moved away. But she did not want to follow that path, and attempted to return as often as possible.
“When I moved around, it was difficult to stay involved in school. I had a lot on my plate and had to grow up very fast, and so I started messing up in school, and cutting class.”
What shined through, and led her back onto a straighter path, was the compassion and outreach displayed by "I Have A Dream". When she couldn’t afford books or supplies, IHDF-NY purchased them. The program even provided her family with blankets.
The program’s importance went beyond teaching Zairia academic skills, as staff members and volunteers fostered her awareness that she could create a better opportunity – and future - for herself. She developed lifetime friendships with Dreamers who wanted her to succeed. Their support, guidance, and the tuition assistance offered by IHDF-NY shepherded her to higher education.
Zairia attended Marist College in Poughkeepsie, where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Social Work in 2007. The following year, she followed her dream at Fordham University, where she soon received a Master’s in Social Work.
She has since held positions that allow her to help others, whether by providing home visits to individuals with HIV or AIDS, offering crisis counseling to the victims of elder abuse, or delivering care as an emergency room social worker. She currently works at Lincoln Hospital in The Bronx.
“The experience I had with 'I Have A Dream' definitely prepared me for my career,” she says. “Sometimes the neighborhoods in which we grow up are not encouraging, do not help us to move forward. It was nice to be part of a program where you are receiving something but also have opportunities to help other people out.”
That desire to give back, she says, is what will drive her for the rest of her life.
“My earliest memories of 'I Have A Dream' always involve the volunteers,” she says. “They made me feel important because they were people who were invested in us. It means so much, and I know I am a product of their investment. It makes you realize how much you were given, and how much a person needs to do well.”
Ricardo Mejias offers a number of reasons why he is on the path to success.
He has received tutoring for difficult subjects like global studies and trigonometry. Activities involving theater and the arts have opened up new worlds. And he’s been given lessons on matters that stretch beyond the classroom walls.
But what has mattered most to Ricardo has been the investment that adults have made in his future, an investment displayed every day he takes part in “I Have A Dream” - New York’s after-school programs.
“I feel that most adults look at us and automatically judge all children because they feel we are all immature,” the 15-year-old says. “But they understand how our lives are. 'I Have A Dream' has changed my life.”
Ricardo admits he was always shy, but emerged from his shell as a result of the attention and caring displayed by the adults involved at DeHostos-Wise. "I Have A Dream" helped him through the high school selection process, and he now attends the High School of Fashion Industries.
He has watched as his grades improved, and he started to lead a healthier life due to the "I Have A Dream" program. As he scaled the educational ranks, he also sharpened a focus on attending college.
“I applied to Pratt, the School of Visual Arts, Parsons, and the Rhode Island School of Design,” the 11th grader said. “I would like to study something in the field of art and am considering architecture or graphic design.”
These aspirations emerged as a result of "I Have A Dream". “They encourage us to attend college pretty much every day, and it’s helpful. There are days when I have too much homework and feel lazy. But they push you and remind you that college is much harder than high school so you have to work hard.”
At the core of "I Have A Dream" - New York’s success is its programming. Over three decades, "I Have A Dream" - New York has sponsored thousands of children and worked with these Dreamers from the earliest ages until they graduate from high school - and even then "I Have A Dream" guarantees them even more opportunity to succeed by providing tuition assistance for higher education.
“I Have A Dream” – NY is first and foremost a college access program. In order to reach our goal of all Dreamers attending and graduating from college, academic programming takes a prominent role in all activities. IHDF-NY staff communicate and collaborate closely with schools to track homework schedules, projects, exams and academic challenges and concerns. Staff plan activities and events that occur in tandem with the lessons during the regular school hours. Rather than introduce new lessons during after-school hours, this complementary design reinforces lessons learned throughout the day.
- Homework Help: Every day, IHDF-NY offers a safe space for homework completion with academic resources and plenty of skilled help and encouragement. Staff work closely with teachers and school faculty to provide activities that support the lessons of the school day.
- Tutoring: Dreamers of all ages benefit from grade-appropriate tutoring in both one-to-one pairs and small group instruction.
- Workshops: IHDF-NY staff hold specialized workshops to improve writing, math and vocabulary skills at all ages.
- Test Prep: All Dreamers participate in appropriate test preparation activities, whether it is for the NY State Exams that begin in 3rd grade or the SATs and ACTs in high school.
- ScienceExplorers: Elementary school Dreamers participate in ScienceExplorers during the summer and periodically during the school year, offered by Glo DeAngelis, Vice President of Education and Outreach for the David Gordon Louis Daniel Foundation. ScienceExplorers is a highly interactive program that engages and excites students about biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering through a series of hands-on projects and experiments.
IHDF-NY staff work with Mentoring USA and other volunteers to pair Dreamers with a mentor at a young age. These relationships often last the entire span of the Dreamer’s time at IHDF-NY providing strong adult modeling and support. At a young age, Dreamers and their mentors participate in group and one-on-one activities and as the Dreamers mature, the relationship focuses on college exploration and application.
Focus on the Future
From the beginning of their time with IHDF-NY, Dreamers are encouraged to look ahead and realize how today’s actions can affect tomorrow’s results. This is most true when preparing for college. Dreamers visit at least one college campus per year beginning in elementary school and are introduced to a variety of career options during the “I Have A Dream” – NY College and Career Week during the public school’s February Break.
- Dreamer U: For low-income students, the prospect of college can be daunting. Few schools’ guidance counselors have the resources to offer counseling, and a 2013 report from the Get Schooled Foundation found that there are few if any comprehensive online resources to help students initially search for schools that might be a good fit for them. Additionally, qualified applicants often overlook prestigious schools assuming their families cannot afford the tuition, not realizing that need-based financial aid packages could substantially cut costs. These factors lead students from low-income communities to either not consider college at all, or not apply to more competitive schools. Dreamer U helps recognize these barriers and ensure that Dreamers are preparing academically and personally for the university experience.
A key component of Dreamer U is the College Coach curriculum, a series of activities for 9-12th graders designed to prepare them and their families for the academic, personal, and social challenges of college, as well as help them with the initial college search and with navigating the college and financial aid application processes. All high school aged Dreamers are required to attend SAT preparation courses, complete practice tests and are inundated with new vocabulary through fun and unexpected methods. Dreamers visit at least one college campus starting as young as elementary school and increase frequency as they mature. An annual College Summit is held every winter for juniors in high school to begin to explore their interest in colleges and methods of college exploration, and begin realistic conversations about college life.
- L.A.D.D.E.R (Learning, Acquiring, and Demonstrating Dreamer Employment Readiness): During the high school years, Dreamers are encouraged to intern and/or hold summer jobs to learn responsibility, gain experience in the working world, and learn more about the endless possibilities that exist for their future. IHDF-NY provides training and guidance on office skills, communication, and professional character. Dreamers are also provided support during their internship/job that helps them to grow and learn while in their job.
- College Success Program: IHDF-NY continues to support Dreamers throughout their college careers when they are considered "Dreamer Scholars". During school breaks, Dreamer Scholars attend informative sessions on time-management, internship acquisition, college writing, networking skills, and more. Dreamer Scholars also continue to have regular meetings with IHDF-NY staff during their semesters via telephone, Skype, and college visits. IHDF-NY staff celebrate the accomplishments of Dreamer Scholars and trouble-shoot the challenges met while at college.
Health & Wellness
IHDF-NY acknowledges that Dreamers must be healthy in mind and body in order to be successful academically. To this end, all ages are provided with health literacy programming, mental health services, nutrition lessons, healthy snacks, cooking classes, and opportunities to be physically active. Healthy choices are not made in silos, so parents and families are included in many of the health and wellness initiatives.
- Building Wellness™: Through experiential learning with games, activities and medical professionals as guest speakers, the Building Wellness curriculum endeavors to encourage and empower Dreamers to seek, question, process and integrate health information as to obtain the highest standard of health.
- Food Fest: Dreamers are equipped with the knowledge and skills to create a healthy, tasty meal. Through activities that introduce new foods, shopping and chopping skills, and nutritional information at age-appropriate levels, Dreamers are ready to prepare a healthy meal for their family and friends at any age. The youngest Dreamers experience chopping peppers and trying new foods such as hummus, while the older Dreamers enjoy making and eating sautéed spinach and garlic and healthier versions of their favorite meals.
- Sports and Recreation: Dreamers play basketball, volleyball, softball, practice yoga and run track among many other sports. The youngest Dreamers partner with New York Road Runners through their Mighty Milers program; Dreamers run/walk miles to earn books. In addition to playing sports, Dreamers attend a variety of professional sporting events to root on the home team!
- Mental Health Program:
Dreamer Talk: Through partnerships with local Schools of Social Work, every cohort has at least one Social Work Intern who is supervised by a Licensed Clinical Social Worker on site providing individual and group counseling, mental health programming, and on-site referral services. IHDF-NY also partners with other organizations such as Planned Parenthood to offer workshops on sexual health, relationships, and communication. Every site has a Boys Group and Girls Group that meets regularly to discuss topics about growing up, communication, relationships, self-esteem, and body image, among many other age-appropriate topics.
Family Matters: Mental and physical health begin in the home, therefore families are encouraged to participate in family counseling, groups for mothers and fathers, nutrition workshops and parenting workshops.
Exposing young children to environments and people introduces them to new ideas and dreams. New York City has so many places, people and events to share with young people, Dreamers are never at a loss for fun extra-curricular activities!
- Free Arts NYC: Dreamers benefit from a long-term relationships with our partner, Free Arts NYC, who provides an educational arts and mentoring program. Free Arts is also committed to working with NYC youth from cradle to college and therefore our Dreamers grow with their art program, often received one-on-one guidance when it is time to apply to specialized arts programs.
- Music: Elementary school Dreamers participate in weekly music education from Music IMPROV, a program led by Dr. Bert Konowitz, a dynamic educator with over 50 years of experience. Lessons encourage students to experiment and improvise in music based on emotions, sounds, and noises, build their music literacy, create their own songs, and occasionally conduct each other in performance. Program lessons are also structured so students can feel, look, and act like processional musicians. Dr. Konowitz incorporates a wide range of genres into lessons, using the music to help them identify the culture, time, and place that created it. Older Dreamers who want to further their musical interests can also participate in keyboard classes.
- Drama and Dance Literacy: Through a long-standing relationship with Lang College at the New School, Dreamers are lead in drama and dance literacy lessons by college students at the New School. These lessons provide an introduction to performance while also introducing Dreamers to college students, helping Dreamers to further visualize themselves as having college-potential.
- Dreamer Give-Back: IHDF-NY values giving back to the communities in which the Dreamers live. Along with participating in many of the fundraising walks in the city, volunteering at soup kitchens, and reading to younger children, Dreamers participate in Dreamer Service Day on MLK Day every January. Traditionally, the older cohorts plan a day of discussion, reflection, and community service in which all Dreamers in NYC participate.
- National Dreamer Conference: Every summer Dreamers in Grade 7 through college from across the country gather on a college campus for three days and two nights of college preparation activities, leadership and life skills development and networking with other Dreamers. Being on a college campus with new friends provides a realistic sample of college-life. This is a life-changing event for Dreamers.
- Field Trips: Dreamers are exposed to local resources such as museums, sporting events, gardens, musical events and theatre throughout their time with “I Have A Dream” – NY. Dreamers attend Broadway shows, concerts at Carnegie Hall, performances at Lincoln Center, and programming at the Museum of Natural History in NYC. They also travel to a variety of colleges for special events and tours.
In order to help Dreamers avoid the “summer slide,” age-appropriate programming is offered to every cohort over the summer. Dreamers are expected to attend the IHDF-NY Summer Academy provided they are not enrolled in another academic or recreational program. There is a heavy focus on academics with reading, writing, math review, and special science activities. Afternoons are spent in sports and recreational activities and weekly field trips expose Dreamers to all that NYC has to offer youth in the summer months. The youngest cohorts of Dreamers have all-day programming while older Dreamers are encouraged to find summer employment, internships or specialized academic programming and must attend weekly IHDF-NY activities.