Six L.A. students spend a “dream” weekend at Disneyworld and come home deeply inspired
In what was perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of living out Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream, nationally syndicated radio host, KDAY's Steve Harvey and the Walt Disney Company gave 100 African American students from all across the country an unforgettable "dream" weekend.
Among the selected applicants were six Los Angeles teens: Russell Haylock of Inglewood, Jeanessa Perry and LaToya Johnson, both of Compton, Kelsie Shawver of Los Angeles, Deonte Harmon of Covina, Jacquelyn Austin of Fontana. All of the bright-eyed students were exposed to a world of opportunities beyond their wildest imaginations and experienced step-by-step coaching sessions of how to realize their personal dreams within the confines of what's considered the world's most creative classroom - The Walt Disney World Resort.
"Launching the first-ever non-conventional career enrichment program called, "The Dreamers Academy" on the weekend of Dr. King's birthday celebration was "very intentional" for all parties involved. "Disney and I sat down and decided this was the weekend to pull it off," said a very emotional Steve Harvey. "Why not? It ties in with one of the greatest men of our life. Dr. King had a dream, these kids can get a dream, Steve Harvey had a dream, Walt Disney had a dream and built the Magic Kingdom. This is where dreams are made to come true and we want to show them there are many ways to follow your dream."
Disney literally opened its doors revealing the magic behind the super successful company. Harvey and the Disney Dream Team personally selected the 100 high school students who showed promise, but needed a little motivation. More than 3000 teens applied from all across the United States for a chance to be a part of the premier class.
The students had to be nominated by a parent, teacher, relative, friend or nominate themselves. A panel of Disney officials, community leaders and Steve Harvey's team personally selected the first class of "dreamers." The kids, many who wrote "heart wrenching" stories about their home life and families, told of why they were the ideal candidates for the Dream Academy.
"I think they chose me because of my determination and my desire to become something great in life," said Eboni Miller of New Jersey. "I have a dream to become a broadcast journalist and I said I would do whatever it takes to get there."
"I still can't believe I'm here and all these people are here to help us" said 15-year old Russell Haylock of Morningside High School. "Everything has been great and I'm learning so much.
"My dream is to become an astronaut and a veterinarian," said 15-year old Jeanessa Perry of Compton who attends New Roads Preparatory School in Santa Monica. Perry also pilots Cessna 172 and 152 single engine airplanes. "I'm very ecstatic about the trip and the whole experience kinda set my focus on what I want to do. It was great to hear from people who started at the bottom and made their way to the top. Seeing that they made it let's me know that I can make it too."
Sixteen-year old Kelsie Shawver of L.A.'s St. Monica Catholic High got a chance to meet ESPN correspondent Jamele Hill. "She's doing what I want to do," said Shawver. "I got a chance to talk with her and I really liked what she had to say."
"This is an opportunity to really change a kid's life. I wish I had something like this when I was their age, I'd be a bigger baller than you see me now," joked Harvey who walked out sporting his new bald look shocking the crowd of students, chaperones, and Disney officials.
"It's incredible what these young people will experience," added Harvey. Using his trademark humor, he made it clear why the students should "take advantage of this incredible" opportunity and not blow it. "When you leave here you will have no excuse, no reason not to have a dream. If you do not make it after this weekend, it is nobody's fault but your own," he suggested. "The key is once you lock into your dream that's what will drive you to greatness." "
The Dreamers Academy is the brainchild of Disney staffers led by Xiomara Wiley, vice president of Global Multicultural Marketing for Disney Parks who championed the project throughout every phase and brought Steve Harvey in as a partner. "I wanted to do something very meaningful for our "Year of a Million Dreams" campaign that would be very significant to African American parents and consumers. Our team brainstormed and came up with the Dreamers Academy.
"I read the letters and the letters were phenomenal," said Wiley. "We had children who are overcoming chronic illnesses, some who were victims of crime, young adults who had gone place to place in the foster care system and felt like their families didn't want them and even some who were nominated by someone saying, ‘we really think this will make a difference and set him on the right path' so we looked for young adults who had something inside and if we just opened it up a bit, it would blossom."
Before the first session kicked off, Walt Disney World President Meg Croft had already agreed to sponsor the next class. "This is about leaving here with more tools, more confidence and more passion to go after your dreams," said Croft. "We're hoping to follow up and track these students for quite some time.
The uplifting sessions were designed as a tribute to the power of dreams and the students were given some prime examples of African Americans who have made it and are living out their dreams today.
Over the course of four days, the "dreamers" got up close and personal with personalities like: BET Founder and first Black billionaire Bob Johnson, American Idol winner Fantasia, singer Keyshia Cole, actresses Victoria Rowell and "Everybody Hates Chris" star Tichina Arnold, famous sports agent Greg Nared, ESPN correspondent Jemele Hill, celebrity chief Jeff Henderson, talk show host Star Jones, Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks and R&B crooner Musiq Soulchild. Each of the rich and famous told of their personal journeys to the top of their fields. Many got emotional while recounting how their dreams came true.
The students also experienced inspirational and informative sessions with "ballers" in every aspect of Disney.
Namely, Dexter Tanksly, the African American Chief Imagineer (that's imagination mixed with engineering). You see, Tanksly - a graduate of Hampton University - was hired straight out of college to help create and design many of the Disney rides and attractions the "dreamers" took full advantage of on their visit.
"My career all started because I had a dream," said Tanksly. "And today, I can't believe I'm getting paid to do this."
ESPN correspondent Jamele Hill told the students how her job takes her around the world covering the Olympics and other high profile sporting events. "I travel all the time and the company pays for it. I have to pinch myself everyday to believe how great of a gig I have."
Celebrity chef Jeff Henderson, formerly the executive chief at Las Vegas' Café Bellagio, told of how his time behind bars helped him find his life's calling, the culinary arts. "Prison saved my life," he said. "It rescued me from the streets and now I have an obligation to give back." Chef Jeff, who became the first African American to be named Chef de Cuisine at Caesars Palace and in 2001 was named Chef of the Year in Vegas, just landed his own reality show on the Food Network.
But perhaps Steve Harvey drove home the point better than anyone else telling the youngsters, "At 51 years old, I still got dreams and that's the thing that wakes me up everyday.
Harvey, who brought his live national radio broadcast to the Dreamers Academy and showed the students job opportunities in media, told of flunking out of college, disappointing his mother, but still believing that one day he'd fulfill his dream to be on television. His popular "Steve Harvey Show" still runs in syndication all over the world.
"I understand the importance of the dream," said the outspoken funnyman. "It's more important than any aspect of your life. Outside of your spirituality with God, nothing is more important than your dream. Your dream is more important than your education. Your dream makes you hang in there to get the education so can be who and what you're dreaming about," he added. "If you don't dream about anything, you don't want to be anything."
Harvey quoted statistics of how the dropout rate for 9th graders in inner city schools is 60 percent. "That's crazy and we have to change that and that's because they don't have a dream," he said. "I need to give as many kids as I can exposure to dreams. Come down here and see what you might want to be."
What does Harvey and Disney's Xiomara Wiley think Dr. King would have said about the Dreamers Academy and what was accomplished here? Both responded, ‘I hope he would have said, well done."