By Hannah Bishop
DREAM, or Directing through Recreation, Education, Adventure, and Mentoring, is a program that matches college students with children living in affordable housing developments in the community. To an outside eye this may look like a group of kids running around Tarrant or grabbing ice cream in Alliot, but to the community and mentors, DREAM is so much more. Described by Ryan Johns, the Vermont DREAM youth service program manager, DREAM is an organization that is constructed into two tiers, an academic engagement and community support tier, and a village mentoring tier.
The academic engagement component is primarily supported by AmeriCorps members who come into the program with a specific focus in supporting community members while the village mentoring tier is supported by college students. Aside from swiping past Rosemary in Alliot and exploring campus, the DREAM program provides real life support to these children and their families, ensuring they are connected with the resources and lasting relationships that they need as they navigate life. According to Johns, AmeriCorps members work on the ground to support these families in various ways.
“Academic support can look a lot of different ways, it can look like getting them a bicycle so they can have an outlet and they can have fun, and then they can focus on their homework,” explained Johns. “It means helping their mom get a social security card, it can also, and most frequently does mean, sitting down and doing homework with kids or getting in touch with teachers to find out what these kids need,” he said.
The second component of DREAM and the component the college campus is exposed to most is the village mentoring program. Described by Tim Strzepa ‘22, a DREAM core team leader and mentor, DREAM is “a fun experience outside of school that gets you involved in the community and helps you establish connections outside of school and make an impact in the local community.” As one of the four core team leaders, Strzepa is in charge of planning and orchestrating meetings with the kids and mentors, and setting up “DREAM Fridays” where the group gets together on or off campus to spend time together.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the DREAM program has been forced to change the way the program is run. As a result, contact between mentors and mentees has been shifted completely to a virtual setting, and some mentors haven’t been able to see or even make in-person contact with their mentee’s in a year.
“We would hang out every Friday in person with the kids, so we would actually bring them here on campus or we would go off campus and do specific activities that we had planned,” Strzepa said.
Now mentors and mentees have been forced into a completely virtual program. According to Strzepa, this makes things a little tricky because some kids do not always have access to computers or ways of communicating with mentors. Consequently, Strzepa along with his colleague core team members have had to reevaluate the program and implement new ideas to connect mentors and mentees.
“We’ve kinda reshifted our focus for the semester and we now have three or four major meeting days…we’ve shifted to mentoring that is more focused on writing letters and dropping off goody bags to the kids,” he explained. “So it’s a lot less physical interaction and a lot more behind the scenes work, but were doing the best we can.”
Behind the scenes, the core team has been working hard to ensure all mentees and mentors are feeling supported during these difficult times. Some of the main ways mentors have kept a line of communication is through letter writing and handpacked bags with notes of encouragement that are safely delivered to the kids.
“One of the biggest challenges honestly has been keeping up with mentor morale and keeping folks engaged,” Johns explained. “So just maintaining that support and morale for folks at a time when they’re dwindling.”
Although the group has faced their fair share of challenges, they are still holding out hope for a light at the end of the tunnel. Danielle Butler ‘22, a DREAM core team leader and mentor, explained how she has been able to keep herself going through these hard times.
“Just knowing that I’m making a difference in a kids life too, it gives them something to look forward to, and that makes me push myself,” Butler said. “If they’re excited to be a part of DREAM I’m gonna give it my all.”
This being said, she understands that it is hard on mentors as well as mentees, as some have reached out to their kids on a regular basis without reply.
“We have a lot of young kids without their own phones, so it’s definitely challenging because you don’t get a response from them, but just sending the letter and putting in the effort and letting them know we’re still here for them is a good feeling,” she said.
One of the major successes DREAM has experienced this semester was their first big mentoring Zoom meeting where the group welcomed the mentees who joined for the first time.
“We actually had kids show up for the first time which was very exciting. We tried to have a few last semester but it didn’t work out, so we kinda shifted to a different way of communicating with the kids and we had 5 or 6 mentees come on and it was a really fun and exciting time to see them and interact with them again,” explained Strzepa.
Even so, Strzepa admits that some of the participants have lost interest in the program due to the lack of in-person activities and other COVID challenges, but he still believes the efforts of the program have been a success.
Ryan Johns, the youth service program manager agrees. “Although we have lost some folks, there is still a core group who is doing what they need to do and are attached and ready, so I’m not concerned and I think not being concerned at this stage is a success,” said Johns.