Meet our Dreamers


Zairia Benjamin
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
Dreamer, DeHostos-Wise

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.”


Our Model

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 "Have A Dream" guarantees them even more opportunity to succeed by providing tuition assistance for higher education.

Academic Support

The main goal of IHDF-NY is for Dreamers to graduate from high school and matriculate to college. In order to meet this goal, a large emphasis is put on academic programming. Some highlights include:

The one-on-one tutoring program provides individual attention to Dreamers. Every attempt is made to match a majority of Dreamers with a professional who can assist during time dedicated to homework completion and also help during necessary periods such as test-prep, special projects, and final exams.

Our Program Directors communicate and collaborate closely with schools to track homework schedules, projects, exams. and academic challenges and concerns. Program Directors are also proactive in intervening should any behavioral or emotional issues arise. Ideally, Program Directors conduct regular conferences to discuss curriculum plans and Dreamer performance. This allows Program Directors to plan activities and events that will 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.

Most "I Have A Dream" sites include or have access to computer labs, printers, and software. Dreamers participate in special projects where they learn valuable computer skills such as PowerPoint and Excel.
The Science Explorers program targets the pronounced challenge in science faced by under-served children: a large achievement gap in science between low-income, minority children and other students, and the small number of minority youth who pursue careers in science. The program is designed to address this challenge by engaging children in hands-on science, enhancing their knowledge of science and motivating them to pursue science in school and beyond. Science Explorers offers a multi-faceted approach to science based on current educational research, including unique highly-participatory lessons and experiments, access to a min-science library, science-related field trips, internships, and visits by science professionals.

Summer Programming

IHDF-NY provides comprehensive summer programming to all Dreamers in order to combat the “summer slip”. Summer provides a perfect time to review academic activities of the past school year and prepare for the coming school year, while providing a balance of fun summer activities for the Dreamers.

Summer Academy

Younger Dreamers attend a full-day summer program located in the Silberman Building of Hunter College during which they participate in academic enrichment to reinforce the math and literacy gains they have made during the school year.  Dreamers are introduced to advanced concepts to give them a boost into their next school year. Some of the exciting academic programs in which they participate are ScienceExplorers, a program designed to spark student excitement in science by giving Dreamers the freedom to get their hands wet, slimy, and dirty doing real science created and funded by The David Gordon Louis Daniel Foundation; Reading Recovery®, an effective early literacy intervention that provides a second chance for students who do not get off to a good start in literacy learning; and individualized tutoring with students from the Hunter College School of Education.  

Dreamers also go on multiple field trips to museums and parks; learn about nutrition from graduate students in the nutrition program at the Hunter School of Public Health; receive musical instruction through the Dreamer Musicians Program, a program designed by Dr. Bert Konowitz, a Music Professor at Columbia University Teachers College; play sports; and create works of art.  Parents enjoy workshops about nutrition through the Hunter School of Public Health, and Free Arts programming during the summer months. Everyone comes together for a Family Picnic on the final day of the summer program for games, food, and fun.


Dreamer Internship and Career Exploration Program

High school and college-aged Dreamers use the summer to further their college and career exploration and preparation. They participate in SAT prep workshops; the NYC Summer Youth employment Program (SYEP); a variety of internships and jobs in locations such as Goddard Riverside, the Jacob Riis Center, and the IHDF-NY offices; enrichment programs, including the Urban Arts Partnership, STEP at Baruch College, Health Corps at Mount Sinai, and the Achievement Initiative Summer Program at Columbia University School of Social Work; and leadership programs such as the Sadie Nash Project.  


National Dreamer Conference

Dreamers also have the opportunity to apply to and attend the National Dreamer Conference.  This Conference gathers Dreamers from around the country on a college campus where they participate in college preparation activities, leadership and life skills development, and networking with fellow Dreamers.  

Dreamer Field Day

Field Day is the culmination of the summer program during which Dreamers from around NYC gather to BBQ, play sports, and relax as a reward for their hard work over the summer.


Community Service Activities

Our Dreamers complete many community service projects each year. These include our annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, as well as neighborhood beautification programs at the local sites.

In addition, one of the highlights of our programs in recent years has been our partnerships with many corporations throughout the New York area. Many companies are now encouraging their employees to spend a day out of the office to participate in projects that serve the communities where our Dreamers live. Volunteers from AOL, Zenith Optimedia,, Google and many other corporations have worked with IHDF-NY Dreamers and staff. Projects include: gardening and park renewal project; painting and revitalizing the our community centers and offices; participating in community service events; fitness and wellness activities; and career day, job shadow, and office visit opportunities.



Social and Cultural Enrichment Activities

Our Dreamers participate in enrichment activities throughout the year, including:


Sports - Our sites provide sport and exercise opportunities for our Dreamers, as well as access to professional games.

Museums – IHDF-NY sites are fortunate to be surrounded by many exceptional museums. Dreamers have participated in scavenger hunts through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and sleepovers at the Museum of Natural History, among many other museums.

Concerts – Dreamers take advantage of the vast musical opportunities throughout New York City. Through New York Youth Symphony’s “Get-On Music” program, Dreamers attend concerts at Carnegie Hall and Jazz at Lincoln Center. They also attend Broadway shows.

Arts Enrichment – Visual Arts, Dance, Drama 


IHDF-NY makes a commitment to infuse arts and arts education into all our program sites. Some programs that are offered at various sites include:

Drama Literacy Theatre Program - Elementary school Dreamers participate in a drama literacy program conducted by a theater professor and her class from the Eugene M. Lang New School University. At the end of each semester, the Dreamers present a performance for family and friends.

The New York Writer’s Coalition sponsors a creative writing workshop providing Dreamers with the basics of poetry and the opportunity to write their first poems.

Free Arts NYC, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing the healing powers of the arts into the lives of abused, neglected and at-risk children and their families, offer a variety of projects including drawing, sculpting, tie dying and wood work.

The Talking Drum Theatre Arts Program provides teens with opportunity to share ideas, listen and think creatively using acting techniques, role play and group discussions.

International Center for Photography @ the Point has provided programming to teach technical and artist aspects of photography, including: composition, developing and processing film, working in a dark room, and studio and street photography practices.


College Preparation, Visits, and Application Help

With college matriculation and graduation as the ultimate goal of each Dreamer, IHDF-NY provides support and advice tailored to each student.


College Coach Program - IHDF-NY works with local businesses and volunteer services to pair Dreamers with a College Coach who will help navigate the college application and financial aid process. By encouraging Dreamers to develop relationships with their college coaches long before the actual application process begins, this relationship develops into a true partnership in which the College Coach becomes a true partner with the Dreamer and their family in the application process. The College Coach understands that there are different benefits, talents, strengths, challenges, and limitations for each Dreamer. The long-lasting relationships that Dreamers form with their College Coach allows them to express their aspirations and goals for high school and college while creating a plan for future success.


Health Literacy

Building Wellness™ is an innovative youth health literacy program created in partnership with the Eugene M. Lang Foundation to address the health challenges Dreamers face despite improved rates of graduation. Through experiential learning with games, activities and medical professionals as guest speakers, the curriculum endeavors to encourage and empower Dreamers to seek, question, process and integrate health information as to obtain the highest standard of health.

According to an “I Have A Dream” Foundation survey conducted with 77 Dreamers in middle and high school, most Dreamers have received some health education (formal or informal) but nearly 65% think this education has been insufficient. For example, while 76% have received at least some nutrition education, only 47% report knowing how to cook a healthy meal and nearly 50% are reportedly not familiar with the connection between diet and heart disease or Type II Diabetes. In the same survey, about one in four Dreamers reported having difficulty reading nutrition labels, more than one in three admitted to having problems understanding doctors, and nearly one in four Dreamers reported not having a physical in the last year. Thus, there is a need to address Dreamers’ health knowledge and ability.

Building Wellness Family Style™ is a complementary workshop series for Dreamer Families. Activities address health literacy skills for the whole family including label reading, recipe reading, total nutrient counts, diabetes information and many other topics. After informational activities that get the Dreamers and their families thinking and/or moving, Dreamers and their families come together to cook a delicious, nutritious meal to share.