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Presbyterian funded community-school partnership helps African-American boys ‘tap into their potential’

DREAAM House—Driven to reach Excellence and Academic Achievement for Males

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

 CHAMPAIGN, Illinois – When you visit the DREAAM House you see young boys preparing for their greatness. A group of pre-K age boys, who live in neighborhoods that sometimes placed them at risk, entered the DREAAM House for the first time in July of 2015.

Tracy Dace, Founder and Visionary Director of DREAAM, remembers how he felt that day.

“I had all kinds of emotion,” he says. “I was like why did I come up with this idea? But the boys’ smiles and parents’ excitement eased all my anxiety and self-doubt.”

Dace’s idea was to create a summer program for boys to enter at an early age (pre-K) and then to walk along with them as they develop, change and grow until they graduate from high school. The program was birthed after working with boys in high school, elementary school, community college and in juvenile justice. As he got to know these young people—and experience the conditions in which they had to navigate, survive and learn—Dace recognized at a deeper level there was a crisis going on.

“When there’s a crisis, you go into crisis mode, right?” says Dace. “You respond. The DREAAM House is our response.”

Dace went to the mission committee at First Presbyterian Church of Champaign, where he was serving as Mission Coordinator, with his idea for the DREAAM House. Hearing Dace’s vision the church decided to support him with seed money—$20,000 a year, for three years—so he could get the project off the ground. As it began to take shape, with the initial pre-K summer program, followed by an after-school program, First Church in Champaign and other Presbyterians in the Presbytery of Southeastern Illinois began to give more than just financial support.

“Presbyterians have a heart for social justice,” says Dace. “We now have Presbyterians who coach soccer. They mentor, drive vans, fix snacks, they read to the boys.”

Zacharyiah Austin, a DREAAM House part-time employee, understands how critical it is for other adults to spend time with these kids, and to give them their energy and focus.

“Some of the boys are close to being thrown in the shuffle, where they don’t fit,” he says. “Our role is make sure they know how to tap into their potential, show it to their teachers and principals.”

Based on what you see on the walls of the DREAAM House—signs about “boys showing respect, using nice words, and working hard”—and what you hear from DREAAM House moms, it appears to be working.

“The motivation and encouragement my son gets from people who look like him helps him realize that he can improve his situation,” says Clarice Merriman, “by making better choices.”

“This is the village helping me raise my son,” adds Eugenia Herman. “His reading level has gone up; he’s a scholar is his classroom—the teacher told me that at a parent-teacher conference.”

The Champaign School District has also taken notice. Dr. Susan Zola, Assistant Superintendent of Achievement, Instruction and Curriculum, says already this cohort of African-American boys are seen in a different way.

“They might not have been recognized in a collective group in a typical school model,” she says. “Short term it has allowed us to reach out to partners, make links to families, to find out what else these young men might need in terms of educational needs.”

Dace is excited the boys are taking on some of DREAAM House’s “expectations and teachings.” He can’t wait to see them “walk across the stage” when they graduate. But for now, Dace still remembers how he felt when the DREAAM started—and how he feels now.

“I wondered, ‘Is this going to work? Are these kids going to get bored? Are they going to show up? Are they going to come back the next days?’” he says, as tears roll gently down his face.

“They showed up. They show up. The DREAAM House is a life-changing initiative because of the kids, the parents, the teachers, the school system, the community, the churches. Not one need has gone unmet. That’s God. That’s God.”

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The DREAAM House is just one example of what is being created through the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Educate a Child national initiative. The convener of the initiative, Alonzo Johnson, coordinator of Self Development of People in the Compassion, Peace and Justice ministry, says the program “is a Godsend,” because it is “an expression of the church doing God’s will—taking care of the least of these.”

Johnson hopes the DREAAM House inspires other Presbyterians to create similar programs for education in their context and culture.


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