Tears of joy and passion flowed at the close of this year’s Disney Dreamers Academy as both teens and parents embraced each other at the end of the intensive four day program.
The Disney Dreamers Academy with Steve Harvey and ESSENCE Magazine is an educational and mentoring retreat designed to teach talented minority high school students the skills needed to achieve their dreams. The annual retreat is highly selective. Only 100 high school students from thousands of applications are selected. Prospective students are chosen via their essay submissions.
“I heard about the program on Steve Harvey’s morning show,” said Brooklyn born Meredith Benson whose son attended this year’s program. “I said, ‘You better write that essay boy!’” she joked.
Her son, Chase Kinzky, now lives in New Haven, Connecticut. He plays Varsity football and has been selected to several All American teams but his love is really for the arts.
“My dream is to open up an art space in the inner city,” Kinzky said. “There are a lot of artistic dudes who don’t really have an outlet to go to express themselves. My dream is to provide that for them.”
The approximately 100 students who attended the Academy with Kinzky are called ‘Dreamers.’ They’re ambitious youth looking for guidance and motivation to achieve their goals.
After the students are accepted, Disney flies them and their chaperones for free to the academy in Disney World, Florida. During their four-day weekend stay room, food and board are all fully covered by The Walt Disney Company which reported its 2014 revenue as US$52.46 billion. Comedian Steve Harvey and Essence Magazine cohost the program.
A star studded list of motivational speakers and experts are flown in a regularly work closely with the Dreamers. This year, four time Grammy award winner Yolanda Adams, renowned educator Dr Steve Perry, and President of Essence Communications, Michelle Ebanks were all regular contributors throughout the weekend. Straight Outta Compton executive producer Will Packer as well as two hosts of The Real, actress Tamera Mowry and comedian Loni Love, also brought unique messages to the teens. Actors such as Lamman Rucker and Lance Gross also gave talks.
“This is my third year with the Disney Dreamers and we just got a chance to really bond with the students,” said Gross. “We’re here to inspire them, to let them know that their dreams can become reality as long as they work hard for it.”
The Dreamers participated in intensive deep dive courses ranging from animation and sports to medicine and engineering, all tailored to their interests.
Dreamer Nicole Hood, always wanted to be a chef and run her own restaurant but didn’t get much support from her peers back in Camden, New Jersey. This isolation all changed when she arrived at the Academy.
“It feels new, different. [I] wasn’t really expecting to meet a lot of people that had the same career as me but since I did it was wonderful and I had a good time interacting with them and socializing with them,” Hood said.
In her deep dive session she met fellow high schoolers who shared similar interests. Together with Disney’s chef Adrian Mandry, the students were given a horticultural and culinary class. On presentation day the usually meek Hood was smiling ear-to-ear with her braces on full display as she presented the team’s key lime pie.
“It helped me to explore my dream more and to just stay passionate to what I want to become in life,” Hood later said at the closing ceremony.
Stories like Hood’s weren’t hard to find. Student after student spoke about gaining confidence to pursue their dream. The program seeks to create a safe, comfortable and positive space for the teens to be ambitious. The Academy arguably delivers these in spades.
“Dreamers Academy taught me to look beyond where I am and more towards where I’m going,” said Princeton Parker, a preacher and former Dreamer now turned host of the weekend’s events. “What is so interesting about this experience is that it is built upon two pillars…, it’s build upon exposure and experience. Usually those of us Dreamers that would come were lacking one or the other.”
In this way, the Academy exposes mostly minority teens, to a world outside of their block, community or town.
This safe space included, access to Disney World’s multimillion dollar facilities such as the Disney University building and the ESPN Wide World of Sports. The staff, employees who volunteered their time to work with the kids, came from across vast 47-square mile Disney resort. Most of them were minorities. Most of them were women. All them were career professionals.
The program also catered to the chaperones/parents. Dr. Steve Perry, MC Lyte and others all gave high energy and sometimes emotional talks about what it means to be a good parent in a world of personal insecurities, reality TV and social media.
“Parents, aren’t you supposed to be the one helping you kids make sense of the world? Not YouTube,” preached Dr. Steve Perry.
Steve Harvey hosted Sunday closing ceremony. Impeccably dressed as usual, the comedian/host/author/radio personality reaffirmed the themes of the Academy with humor and heart. The ceremony ended with parents surprising their teens with commemorative rings.
“This ring is a symbol of your connectedness to your family,” Harvey narrated as parent after parent slipped jewelry onto the Dreamer’s fingers. “This ring is a symbol of the community that would support you. And it symbolizes your connection to your dream.”
Parents, teens and staff all wept.