ORLANDO – Over the weekend something magical happened to 100 teens looking for an opportunity to make their dreams a reality.
They were whisked away from their daily routine to the fairytale setting of Walt Disney World theme parks and given hope.
The youngsters, handpicked from nearly 10,000 applicants, are the latest class of young Dreamers to pass through the life-changing Disney Dreamers Academy (DDA) in Orlando, Florida.
What they experienced in four jam-packed days was nothing short of amazing: tailored mentoring, careers advice, interactive hands-on classes and unprecedented access to celebrities and experts at the top of their fields.
Now in its 7th year, the academy in partnership with Steve Harvey and Essence magazine continues to hold true to its mission to unlock potential in young people as well as inspire them to unlimited possibilities.
“Education is not the most important thing in your life: It’s your dream,” said funnyman-turned-host, Harvey, at a media conference at Magic Kingdom on the first day of the academy.
“I tell parents all the time just talk to your children at least once a month to find out what they want and dream about because it changes all the time. Their dream propels them to get an education.”
“The Disney Dreamers Academy is a life-changing experience that will have an incredible impact on your future,” said Tracey Powell, a Disney executive and DDA Executive Champion.
The mammoth logistical operation, which involves flying all the high school students — along with a parent or guardian — on an all-expenses-paid trip to Disney from March 6-9, was executed with military precision.
Disney puts on a spectacular show; the Dreamers Academy was no exception.
All the teens participated in Deep Dives, a plethora of interactive careers labs with experts in chosen fields, ranging from law to medicine, culinary arts, zoology, performing arts and much more.
Then there were times when kids were divided into two groups based on gender.
In an interview with theGrio, Dr. Alex Ellis, CEO and founder of Tied To Greatness, said he facilitated a workshop teaching the boys “to never underestimate the power of their image,” which culminated with a tie-tying ceremony.
“The male Disney reps, the celebrities and the guests that are here, we teach the young men how to tie ties,” said Ellis. “It’s a powerful moving exercise because many of these young men come from single-parent homes and with the epidemic of fatherlessness in our community they don’t have a man to teach them how to tie ties.”
At a parent workshop, educator Dr. Steve Perry reminded “the grown people” that parenting is a challenging for everyone.
“It’s [parenting] supposed to be tough,” said Dr. Perry. “We all have those nights when you think to yourself I don’t know if I am going to figure this out. That’s normal, it’s supposed to be uncomfortable. You’re supposed to be trying to figure it out.”
“It’s been great and has exceeded my expectations,” said Dreamer Jordon Fisher, an 18-year-old senior, from Jonesboro, Georgia, who dreams of becoming a media mogul. “It’s bigger and better than I thought I’d be. It’s not every day you get this kind of access.”
“It makes me want to make a difference,” said Dreamer Lenna Reed, from Houston, Texas, who dreams of being a psychiatrist for veterans, teenagers or pro football and basketball players.
“They [NBA and NFL players] are usually kids from low-income families who are put on a pedestal,” said Reed. “That’s why they mismanage their finances and have emotional problems. No one looks at their background.”
This year’s group of scholars was selected from a pool of 10,000 nationwide – nearly double the applicants compared with last year — by a panel of judges, including Steve Harvey; Disney’s Tracey Powell; Mikki Taylor of Essence Magazine; celebrity chef Jeff Henderson; Sonia Jackson Myles, founder and author, The Sister Accord; and Jonathan Sprinkles, an award-winning motivational speaker.
Prospective dreamers must be in a U.S. high school and aged between 13 and 19. To win a place they submit an application and essay about their personal stories and life dreams. Since its inception, 700 students have passed through the program.
Other official ambassadors of DDA, who also participated in the weekend, included gospel music legend Yolanda Adams; actor and host of E! News, Terrence J; and Disney Dreamer alumnus Princeton Parker.
Entertainment Tonight’s Rocsi Diaz also hosted conversations with gospel singer Tamela Mann; 15-year-old self-made IT multimillionaire Jaylen Bledsoe; 16-year-old actress and singer Coco Jones; and actors Lamman Rucker, Laz Alonzo and Lance Gross, among others.
Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter at @Kunbiti