Centers and Mentors Team Up to Unlock Dreams
Resource type: News
The sound of a prison door slamming shut reverberates well beyond America’s correctional facilities—it impacts the children of incarcerated parents across the country.
To help these children cope and prevent the cycle of incarceration, gospel singer and minister Wintley Phipps founded the U.S. Dream Academy in 1998. The Oprah Winfrey Show first featured Wintley’s organization in 2001 when he received a Use Your Life Award for his work. At the time, his efforts were just gathering speed. He was singing the gospel to prisoners and had started two community centers in Washington, D.C.
Fast forward to today and the U.S. Dream Academy now runs 11 centers around the country in at-risk urban areas, bolstered by the support of a number of celebrities and politicians—from senators Hillary Clinton and Orrin Hatch to comedian Chris Tucker. To raise funds, the academy holds annual fundraising galas, which have provided the financial support needed to create a sustainable organization.
“I’m really proud that we’ve been able to impact the lives of thousands of young people,” said Wintley. “I wish we could do more because the problem gets bigger every year. By the age of 30, 60 percent of black boys in the United States who do not graduate from high school will have spent some time in prison.”
These alarming numbers are part of what Wintley calls the “normalization of incarceration,” a trend where in certain communities going to prison is no longer seen as shocking, but merely a rite of passage.
“We need to put it in the minds of young people that just because members of your family have been in prison—and that nobody’s outraged—doesn’t mean that it’s normal.”
Getting Students Up to Speed
U.S. Dream Academy centers are usually located within an elementary or middle school, and the staff work closely with teachers and administrators to identify children who would benefit from the program. The program has grown into a daily after-school program (previously it was 2–3 days a week), added a summer program and expanded its age range to include children from grades 3–8.
At the U.S. Dream Academy center in Philadelphia Pa., center director Lavarr Zuber works closely with about 60 children from grades 3–8 every weekday after school for three hours. The center, located at the George W. Childs elementary school, focuses on three pillars to help students: skill-building, character-building and dream-building. Children are divided up by age group and then rotate between the areas while Lavarr, his staff and volunteer mentors help oversee the activities.
“These children make you laugh all the time,” said Lavarr. “As you work with children for an extended period of time, you grow to love them like your own and so the education you are helping them with, you end up taking very seriously.”
The centers use an online academic curriculum called “Success Maker,” which identifies areas of weakness in reading and math, and then provides instruction to improve a student’s understanding of the topic. Character-building initiatives vary by center, but generally allow the students to participate in charitable projects such as the one in Baltimore, Md., where students collected trash from their community and converted it into artwork—which they then used to alert the community about the advantages of recycling. More generally, students learn about positive character traits such as honesty, caring and service to others.
Perhaps the strongest component of the program is dream-building, through which the centers place students in a one-to-one mentoring program with positive caring adults who meet once per week at the center. Volunteer mentors are recruited from corporations and universities. In Houston, for example, four members from the NFL’s Houston Texans organization signed on to become mentors; while in Baltimore, the center partners with Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and has dozens of medical students each year volunteer as mentors.
“We were excited that kids who previously did not envision themselves alive at 18 or 20 years old are now talking about going to medical school to become a pediatrician, researcher or study forensics.” said the academy’s national executive director Diane Wallace-Booker about the effect of the Johns Hopkins mentors.
Other dream-building activities include field trips, guest speakers, college tours and career exploration through research and hands-on projects.
A Challenging Backdrop
Despite the positive environments the centers foster, the day-to-day work poses real challenges. Many of the children suffer from emotional issues related to their family situations. Lavarr, the Philadelphia center director, spoke of Marcus*, who came to the program after his behavioral problems had gotten out of control at school.
After talking with the family, Lavarr discovered that Marcus had recently experienced several traumatic events. His father was incarcerated and the woman he believed to be his mother, in a fit of anger told him “I am not your real mother, get away from me!” Devastated that his “mother” was rejecting him, he then had to endure the fear and anxiety of meeting his birth mother, only to learn two months later that she died.
Lavarr worked closely with Marcus’ grandmother to help the young boy deal more effectively with the tragedy, addressing both his behavioral issues and school work while at the academy. Lavarr then matched Marcus with a volunteer mentor who met him once a week to work on coping skills.
“He’s doing a lot better,” says Lavarr. “The mentor we matched him with has been perfect because she’s been a mother figure and she’s been so involved each week here and at school … She’s what he needed most at this point in his life.”
In the past two years, Lavarr and Marcus’ grandmother have seen significant improvement—no more incidents and his performance in school has turned around.
It’s this kind of one-to-one attention that gives Wintley hope that the academy’s creative and caring solutions will make a difference in the lives of these children.
“I’ve learned that if you want to break the cycle of incarceration you have to increase the density of caring loving adults in the life orbit of these children,” said Wintley.
The academy hopes to open 15 more centers in the next five years, and has recently received a two million dollar capacity-building grant from Atlantic Philanthropies to support this growth.
*Marcus’ name has been changed to protect his identity.