What Makes a DREAM?

BY: Sam Mihelich, Program Empowerment Director

Over my next few blog posts, I want to highlight how DREAM’s Core Values are incorporated into our site’s programming! Today, I’m taking a look at two in conjunction: “Contagious Energy” and “Supportive Community”. If you’d like to see the official writeup of DREAM’s Core Values, you can find that here: http://www.dreamprogram.org/about/core-values.
Our program creates a fun and attractive environment where diverse interests are encouraged and new ideas are supported. Those outside the program will sense this energy and will be drawn to DREAM.  Contagious energy perpetuates the feeling that anything is possible with a can-do attitude.
The children, parents, mentors, staff, alumni, and other supporters of DREAM are part of a single community that rallies behind individuals to help them face challenges, overcome differences, and succeed.
When I mention what I do at work, I get one of two responses. One, “Wow, that sounds like so much fun!” The other, “That’s so important. I remember how much that kind of support helped me when I was a kid.” These two responses seem opposed, but really, they encapsulate two different DREAM core values. Contagious Energy is all about the atmosphere and mood. Supportive Community is providing space and agency to have new experiences and to try new things.
Last weekend, Cecil B Moore went on a camping trip. The mentees were so excited to get out of the city, but they were also anxious about sleeping outdoors and eating over a campfire. DREAM’s high adventure trip is the perfect place to foster contagious energy and a supportive community!

If you’ve ever driven a car full of kids somewhere, you’ve felt contagious energy. We had DREAMer Mark yelling that he’s “so excited to leave Philadelphia!” and reassuring one of the younger mentees, Zaria, about being away from home. She was nervous at first, but she knew she would have fun because everyone else was keeping the mood light. I overheard Sean and Tymir talking while swapping spots in a kayak. Sean was getting out, and Tymir was about to take to the water. “How was it? Was it fun?” Tymir asked. “Yeah! It was so cool! The river is awesome!” Sean answered with gusto. The energy each child brought with them bounced off everyone else, and it allowed for new experiences and enthusiasm in learning new skills.
That enthusiasm was only possible because of the supportive community in place. It encourages the idea that anything is possible, and provides space to face challenges head on. One of the mentees was incredibly nervous about getting on the river while kayaking, and tensed up about a boat-length’s distance into the river. Each kayak was a mentor-mentee pairing, which allowed for support and encouragement through every paddle. The other kayak also came alongside them as reassuring agents, while providing time to calm down and explore this new environment. Within five minutes, they were off, with laughter permeating the air. I’m incredibly proud of our mentors and mentees for organizing this trip. At one point, Mark remarked, “I’m glad we’re by the fire. It draws you into conversation and we can listen to everyone.” His remark about camping punctuates and draws out what was already there and growing… a supportive community.

Mission Moment: How Does DREAM Help You?

BY: Jennifer Horan, Regional Director

Every March the DREAM development team enters a season we lovingly refer to as, “Grantpocalypse,” a 1-2 month period in late spring when our calendars are filled with multiple grant application due dates. During this time, my over-caffeinated brain is humming with qualitative data, program outcomes and various other evaluative measurements demonstrating the impact of our mission to prospective funders. What these statistics don’t measure, though, are those random and beautiful “mission moments” that help validate why we do what we do.

Recently, on a blustery February Friday, our Program Director, Jay MacFadgen, walked up the block to Beckett Gardens Apartments to visit the mentors and kids during programming. Inside he found Temple mentor, Zena and her mentee, Nolen. The two were face to face, engrossed in conversation and sucking on lollipops. Jay took his phone out to take a picture, but decided to record a video instead. His question for Nolen was simple…”tell me why you like DREAM.” This was his response…

Nolen wasn’t prompted, and we weren’t fishing for a sound bite. He spoke with the unrestrained honesty of a child when asked how he really felt about DREAM, about the mentors, about his Zena. In the end, this is what we call a mission moment. It’s a simple yet poignant reminder that our work isn’t validated by statistics or grant awards, but by an 8-year old boy whose day is better because we’re in it.

Ice Skating and the Art of Learning

BY: SAM MIHELICH – Program Empowerment Director

Our Cecil B Moore site took upon themselves a challenge at the beginning of the year. They decided that they wanted to get off-site at least once each month. They’ve been on the college campus, to the zoo, and more, always having new experiences to look forward to and chances to learn. This last Friday we went ice skating, and we saw how mentoring and learning work in tandem!


Aboard the Broad Street Line, Sean (left) whispers to the ear of Will (right), a Temple University mentor serving our DREAM site at Cecil B. Moore

The confidence of a kid learning a new skill is incredible. One of the boys started off shaky, hugging the rink’s wall for the first 15 minutes. By the time we were done, he was skating in circles. I went to tell Sean how proud I was of his improvement, to which he responded with, “Yeah. I know.” and then continued to talk about how excited he was about sliding around on the ice. To Sean, this wasn’t a question. He knew that he could improve and he gave it his all, confident in himself and the mentors to help him learn.

When a young person has support to try new experiences, they flourish. Our mentors and kids have grown through these monthly trips, and it’s been so cool to hear them talk about the relationships they’ve built while learning new things!

Staff Mentorship Inaugural Ceremony

Mentors-in-Training interns get paired with DREAM staff members:

On Friday, January 13th, DREAM had its much anticipated “Mentor Reveal Day.” The program team and staff prepared a day of fun for the Mentor-in-Training interns, taking them to the Rolling Thunder Skating Center, before revealing staff mentor matches for our teens.

Created in the midst of our launch in Philadelphia, this innovative program devotes substantial resources to young students in their teenage years, cementing their college and career goals. The teenage years can be a troubling age for all, as issues are compounded by exposure to damaging forces, which causes these teens to disengage from school. This supportive group to which our teens apply are accepted after an interview and years of demonstrated commitment to DREAM; their role is to embrace new responsibilities in supporting our mentees and the organization, whereas our DREAM staff does our part to provide them with professional skills and the guidance to achieve success in life, with topics including healthy lifestyles, civic engagement, and most importantly, college education preparation. In the meantime, the interns sign a contract pledging to lead and facilitate activities for the younger cohort of mentees, planning the curriculum for our weekly enrichment programming, organizing community service events, and receiving professional academic tutoring.

Below is an interview DREAM conducted with Naijada (Nai Nai), one of our Mentor-in-Training interns. Do not be deceived by short responses, however; for Nai Nai is a young lady imbued with an entrepreneurial spirit. After DREAM, she envisions herself attending university to major in economics.

Javier: How did you hear about DREAM?

Nai Nai: I heard about DREAM from a friend. My friend worked at DREAM, she told me about it, and so I was interested, and I started DREAM

Javier: What does DREAM mean in your life?

Nai Nai: DREAM kicked me out of a lot of trouble, because without DREAM, I’d probably be out in the streets doing things I shouldn’t be doing.

Javier: What’s the biggest change in your life that DREAM helped you with?

Nai Nai: DREAM made me want to be a better person. It made me tell myself, ‘I can do better.’


Nai Nai (right) speaks with fellow Westpark MiT, Armani, shortly before the unveiling ceremony

Javier: What is the most important aspect about mentorship?

Nai Nai: The most important thing about mentoring is communication. If you can communicate with your mentor, it gives the mentee something to trust, to talk to them about things. That way, you know there will always be someone to help you and talk to you!

Javier: What do you like about local adventure trips?

Nai Nai: They create an opportunity for me to communicate with my mentor. And also, just sharing the experience with everybody. Because every time we go somewhere, to everyone it is new, so sharing that experience with everybody is fun.

Javier: What are your plans after DREAM?

Nai Nai: I’m finishing school

Program Snapshot: K&K

When we asked Koya to reflect on her experience with us, she simply said, “DREAM made me, me.”  From our perspective—the staff and mentors—this opens with meaning the importance of being the organization “Directing through Recreation, Education, Adventure, and Mentoring.” In Philadelphia, this approach takes on added importance, for the city has made recent budget cuts, “eliminating art, music, and athletic programs.” Tragically, this limits the opportunities for their education, failing to expose them to the joy of learning while playing, or finding pride in their communities through sports. At DREAM, we present an alternative to kids based on our Village-Mentoring model, knitting together universities and communities to create one family.  

As part of our Mentors-in-Training internship, Koya, and her sister, Kyah, also benefit tremendously from the other components of DREAM. Through the years, they have grown to be committed and reliable partners for our youth, being an irreplaceable presence in our weekly programming activities—partnering with kids as trusted mentors and serving as leaders in our local and regional trips. “We help them build on their everyday lives. We help them talk about their stress. It gets them off the streets from being bad,” Kyah remarked about the importance of DREAM in children’s lives.

Two years ago, Koya and Kyah embarked upon our first college road-trip. Until that moment, they were both intimidated by the prospects—and indeed, the possibility—of receiving a post-secondary education. “Before our college road trip, we would just hang out, throw a ball around.  When I went to those colleges, I said: I need to get this (high-school) diploma to get this. Hold up!  Now I know what I need” Koya said. She hopes to be a professional veterinarian one day, and we’ve continued to support her by organizing civic service activities at animal shelters.

We’ve also been the organization that has strengthened the sisterly bond between Koya and Kyah. “I think that it’s great to have a sister in DREAM.  I get to work with her inside and out of DREAM.  We bump heads, but then I see her in DREAM and I got to put my argument to the side,” they sheepishly admitted. In the process, however, they’ve gained other sisters too, like “Aloni and Jas and Maya and Flannery.”

Dream On

Like all dreams, ours was organic. Envisioned in the imagination of student volunteers from Dartmouth College, and realized in the nearby Templeton Court Apartments, DREAM was founded in January of 1999. In November of 2001 it became an independent non-profit organization. However, we were never afraid of dreaming too big. On the contrary, DREAM kept getting bigger and bigger–first in Vermont, and soon thereafter, nationally!

The former Templeton Court Apartments

Today, DREAM supports over 350 mentoring pairs spread out over 18 local programs throughout Vermont, Greater Boston area, and Philadelphia.


The program traces its origins to 1998 when Kathryn Ross, an AmeriCorps member, was charged with the duty of providing after-school programming for the close to 100 children living at the Templeton Court Apartments, a Section 8 housing development. Kathryn connected with students attending Dartmouth, who quickly organized themselves into a weekly mentoring program that became known as DREAM (Directing through Recreation, Education, Adventure, and Mentoring).

By May of 1999, the program consisted of more than 30 mentoring pairs who undertook bold adventures together. Over the next two years, they planned and raised money to travel to Boston, Colorado, Montreal, and Washington DC. These trips laid the foundation for DREAM’s High Adventure program. We promise our teens that they will never walk alone in life. For the trips, we designed our now famous bright yellow and blue t-shirts, so every one of us could be spotted any time. And our teens can be sure that this piece of clothe lasts far more than any single trip. Instead, it wears on you forever, because you can be sure that you can count on the support of our alumni network, including hundreds of former mentors and mentees.


Many of the original mentors graduated in 2001, and two of the graduates decided to found a non-profit organization with a vision to have loving adults be meaningfully involved in children’s lives. They wanted to provide experiences that would allow DREAM’s youth to be well positioned to achieve their dreams. That and have fun.

New programs were started with the University of Vermont, Champlain College, St. Michaels College, and nearby communities. To address the need for summer and winter programming while mentors were on break, DREAM hired interns to provide summer programs in the communities, and purchased land in Fletcher, Vermont, which became Camp DREAM. Camp offered summer and winter adventure experiences. By 2006, year-round programming provided a constant mentoring presence in the lives of DREAM youth.


Once DREAM had established its recipe of success in Vermont, we were ready to move to other sites in the region. First came Boston. In a city where academic rigor wafts through the air, we built relationships with college students from some of the most renowned institutions (thus far, Harvard, Boston U, and Northeastern University) to mentor youth in some of the most precarious neighborhoods in the city: Orchard Gardens and Madison Park. More than expanding to a new city, it invigorated DREAM, for it allowed us to transplant our Village Mentoring model from a rural to urban setting. In 2014, our organization established itself in the city of Brotherly Love, where the reasons to love the kids abound, but where challenges are plentiful, too.

We have always had the vision to share our exceptional program with as many others as we can reach in a way that maintains the quality of the DREAM experience. We look forward to discovering more ways to provide youth opportunities in the future!