MAKING A DIFFERENCE
By Darlene Donloe
The mission of the I Have A Dream Foundation–Los Angeles is to provide long-term support to youth living in under-resourced communities to enable them to achieve their full potential.
From an early age, the organization promotes values of higher education and career success and provides opportunities guaranteed through financial resources, enrichment programs and more.
Janell Lewis, the recently appointed interim director of the foundation, wanted to work with the organization for those very reasons.
“I wanted to work here because it starts early with prevention instead of intervention,” said Lewis, who is also the senior director of programs. “I was intrigued by that. I was like, ‘if we are in their lives that long we can do our best to help set them up for a successful future.’”
Lewis, who has been with the foundation since 2013, recognizes that her appointment as the interim director is significant.
“It’s a very important time in history to be a person of color at the helm of an organization like this and be a leader,” Lewis said. “Not to take away from our former leaders. I am first generation. I know what it’s like to grow up in poverty. It’s something I can relate to.
“My goal in life is to empower whomever God puts in my path — so they can reach their full potential. I had already been with the program before being named interim director, so it’s beneficial for me to be able to lead it.”
The foundation, which serves students in Inglewood, Watts and Boyle Heights, works to ensure that all children have the opportunity to pursue higher education, fulfill their potential and achieve their dreams.
The students, called Dreamer Scholars, are empowered to graduate from college by equipping them with the skills and knowledge to succeed in postsecondary school, as well as tuition support to help remove financial barriers.
The foundation is all in when it comes to assisting the Dreamer Scholars. Help is provided during school, after school, on the weekends, and throughout the summer, over the course of 10-plus years, developing long-term relationships with students and their families.
“It’s not just about the longevity, it’s about the fact that we grow with our students and our families,” said Lewis, a Washington native with a master’s degree in social work. “Our program coordinators stick around a long time. After they are done with the program, the students don’t leave. They invite us to life events like weddings, and baby showers because we really are a family. We are there for so long. We meet people where they are.”
The organization provides individualized support that comes through social and emotional development, mentorship programs, civic engagement, life skills development, college and career readiness, academic support and parent engagement.
“We don’t tell people how to do things, we honor their strengths,” Lewis said. “We dig deep on how we execute that plan. Along the way, there are experiences they go through. They look to us to support them through it all.
“They pour into us and we pour into them. That’s the magic of the work we do. It’s more connection-based than work. The families are really special. When you hear me talk about this organization, the passion is real.”
The reason a foundation is needed is that only 9% of low-income students earn a bachelor’s degree — compared to 77% of their high-income peers. About 51% of students in U.S.
public schools, or 25 million, are low-income. The college graduation rate for high-income students has nearly doubled in the past 40 years. Unfortunately, the graduation rate for low-income students has stagnated.
New York businessman Eugene Lang founded the national I Have a Dream Foundation in 1981 when, prior to giving a speech at his middle school alma mater in Harlem, he was told that 75% of the students in attendance would drop out before graduating from high school.
He was so alarmed, he changed his speech and offered to pay the college tuition of every student in the room who graduated. Inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, the “I Have A Dream” movement began and expanded to more than 60 independently run nonprofits in cities across the United States, Canada and New Zealand.
The Los Angeles affiliate was the second one to open, founded in 1987 by the Whittier Family Foundation. For more than 30 years, the local foundation has cumulatively impacted more than 11,500 individuals from under-resourced communities including Dreamer Scholars and their families with 91% of kids qualifying for free or reduced lunch.
Most Dreamer Scholars are the first in their families to graduate college; 77% do not have a parent or guardian
with a four-year degree.
The foundation boasts a significant impact.
About 90% of the students complete high school
compared to 74% of low-income students nationally. Students in the program are three times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than their low-income peers. College graduates earn, on average, an additional $1 million in lifetime earnings.
The foundation’s programs currently serve nearly 350 youth across 20 programs from the aforementioned under-served communities.
Students are not chosen individually.
“That’s the beauty of this program,” Lewis said. “We don’t pick and choose. We choose the entire grade level. We make space for every single student for that [program]. There is no pick and choose, no cherry-picking.”
Each school has a program designed for a specific grade level. P20 or Program 20 means that school was the 20th program sponsored by the local foundation affiliate.
Program 20 at Frank D. Parent Elementary School in Inglewood works with third and fourth graders.
Program 19 in Boyle Heights is designed for eighth-graders.
Program 18 at 99th Street Elementary in Watts is currently designed for 11th graders.
Program 17 Dreamer Scholars graduated from high school in June 2019, and 80% of the group has enrolled in post-secondary education as current sophomores.
Program 16 Dreamer Scholars graduated from high school in June 2018. About 75% are enrolled in post-secondary education as current juniors, while the remainder joined the military or workforce.
All of the programs are predominantly African American and Latino.
Programs take place Monday through Friday from whatever time students get out of school until 5:30 p.m. The summer program, taught by certified teachers, lasts four weeks. During that time, there can be a review of what they learned during the school year and a look ahead at what they will be studying for the next year.
“Once we are in the school we stay at that school site until they graduate from that school site,” Lewis said. “Once they move out of the area or into a different school, we go to where the majority of them are. Once they get to high school we are spread across 30 high schools.”
In addition to academics, Dream Scholars are also taken on field trips and receive two college visit trips a year.
“If they don’t want to go to college, we don’t force them,” Lewis said.
About 96% of Dreamer Scholars graduated from high school on time, and 81% went on to college.
Like other organizations, the foundation had to pivot when COVID-19 hit and launched into virtual programming almost immediately.
“We started ensuring our students got one-on-one support over Zoom, FaceTime, or the phone,” Lewis said. “We offer homework assistance. Once a week Zoom calls are made to check on our students.”
A four-week summer program was launched for elementary and middle school students.
“For high school, it was more current events of what’s happening in our world,” Lewis said. “How are you dealing with the current climate, racial divide, and equality, civic engagement along with college and career prep? Homework support — all of the students have access to that. We provide help in a number of areas. We support the whole child.”