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A Decade of Dreams (DDA 2017)




“You don’t let other people stop your dreams because it’s not theirs, it’s yours. My mind has been expanded, and I feel good, and I feel great, and I feel like life has something waiting for me!”

One hundred high school students and 10 alumni from across the United States kick off the tenth Disney Dreamers Academy Thursday, March 9, 2017, with a special parade at Magic Kingdom in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Pictured: students from Florida. The event, taking place March 9-12, 2017 at Walt Disney World Resort, is a career-inspiration program for distinguished high school students from across the U.S. (Gregg Newton, photographer)

Those were the exuberant words of Rebecca Jean-Louis, an Orlando student selected to be a part of the Disney Dreamers Academy with Steve Harvey and Essence Magazine. The annual four-day educational and mentoring program for U.S. high school students 13 to 19 was held at Walt Disney World Resort March 9-12. The program is all-expense paid.

Students compete for participation in the program by submitting an application and answers to a series of essay questions about their personal stories, the people who are most influential in their lives and their dreams for the future. A panel of judges, some of whom are celebrities, select 100 students from across America who become identified as “Dreamers” on day one of the program.

Hometown winner
Jean-Louis was touched by the Disney magic beyond being selected and attending the 2017 event.

A senior at Orlando Baptist Temple Prep in Orlando, the articulate youth has experienced homelessness to the extent that she once lived in a car with her mother. At the graduation ceremony held on the closing Sunday, four special awards were given that signify Disney’s four guiding principles: curiosity, confidence, consistency and courage. Jean-Louis held her head high as she was given the award for consistency.

Disney Dreamer Rebecca Jean-Louis (Orlando, Fla.) celebrates with Mickey Mouse after receiving an award during the commencement of Disney Dreamers Academy at Epcot in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Disney Dreamers Academy is a career-inspiration program for distinguished high school students across the U.S. (Gregg Newton, photographer)

10 years of success

“When Disney Dreamers Academy started a decade ago, we had high hopes that it would be a meaningful program that would change the lives of teens and the world around them,” said Tracey D. Powell, vice president of deluxe resorts for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.

Powell serves as Disney Dreamers Academy executive champion.

Steve Harvey Welcomes the 2015 Disney Dreamers Academy at Walt Disney World ResortSteve Harvey is joined on stage at graduation with the “Lion King’’ cast along with Michelle Eubanks (CEO of Essence, Inc.), Mikki Taylor (editor-at-large at Essence), and Tracey Powell (vice president of Deluxe Resorts for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts).

“Now, entering our 10th year, it’s heartwarming to see so many of our Dreamers who have blossomed into young adults and turned the dreams they cultivated at Disney Dreamers Academy into reality. Our Dreamer alumni are now entrepreneurs, running charitable organizations, professional singers and actors and even Disney cast members, she added.

Harvey without humor
Arguably the finest hour of the weekend belonged to the event’s signature celebrity – Steve Harvey. Both students and the one parent or legal guardian invited to attend were welcomed by Harvey in the Circle of Life Theatre in Epcot’s Land Pavilion.

Walt Disney World Resort Welcomes Disney Dreamers AcademySteve Harvey celebrates the 10th year of Disney Dreamers Academy by serving as grand marshal in the kick-off parade.

Sage wisdom trumped acerbic humor when the television talk show host and syndicated radio personality addressed the Dreamers:
“Ten thousand people applied for the Disney Dreamers Academy. One hundred of ya’ll got picked.

Now trip on that for a minute,” Harvey stated. “Dreams are critical , man. That’s what this whole thing is built on – dreams.

“You can get an education and that’s important too because a lot of things you want to be are tied to your education…but the one thing that’s more important than your education is your dream. Nothing is more important than your dream,’’ Harvey added.

Hoop dreams
Tyrik Pitts is one of Florida’s lucky 14 selected. The 18-year-old student-athlete attends East Lee County High School in Lehigh Acres.

“I have a passion for sports,” Pitts said. “My love lies with the game of basketball, and one day I would like to play professional basketball for the NBA, but I know it’s easier said than done.”

If discipline is an indicator, Pitts is destined to succeed. He maintains a 4.1-grade point average and plans to attend the University of Florida or the University of Central Florida to earn a degree in broadcast journalism.

“My mother has always stayed on me about my grades,” said Pitts. “In middle school, I kind of slacked off and then she came to me before high school and said this is where it really counts, so I just kept my mind on getting A’s and not B’s.

Pitts interviewed Heisman winner and NFL icon Cam Newton and participated in a hands-on, full immersion workshop at ESPN.  All of the Dreamers participated in motivational presentations and workshops for learning critical personal and professional skills, such as communication techniques and networking strategies.

Panhandle powerhouse
Hunter Gerard is a leader among her peers. The 18-year-old high school senior hails from Crestview but was born in Lakenheath, England as an Air Force child. She balances being her school’s dance team captain, Multicultural Council president, yearbook editor, and has studied digital design for three years.

“My Catholic church helped me establish leadership skills, she shared. “Every year they select three or four students for a summer Christian leadership institute. I attended and was there for four days. It really honed my leadership abilities and taught me a lot.”

Gerard was part of the Dreamers Academy journalism and design team that published a newsletter in three days. The effort was led by Charreah Jackson, the senior editor at Essence. The diverse skills and interest of each Dreamer were cultivated and participants like Gerard, she’s ready to go next level as she enters Troy University in the fall.

Inspiring words
Encouragement was abundant for the Dreamers who were able to stand shoulder to shoulder with a host of their favorite celebrities like Patti Labelle, Yolanda Adams, Mikki Taylor, Cam Newton, Taj Mowry, Jaylen Bledsoe, Dr. Steve Perry, Bryshere Gray and Jonathan Sprinkles.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (center) meets with high students from Charlotte (l-r) Benjamin Tillman, Erin Lashley and Righteous Keitt, Saturday, March 11, 2017, before speaking to 100 Disney Dreamers at Disney’s Dreamers Academy at Epcot in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The tenth annual event, taking place March 9-12 at Walt Disney World Resort, is a career-inspiration program for distinguished high school students across the U.S. (Gregg Newton, photographer)

“People see the final product. The hard part is getting there,” said Newton. “Not everyone respects the hustle. I don’t like to be broke. We all are superheroes and have something. My something is football. It’s my God given gift.”

Gray, who plays the confident young rapper “Akeem” on the Fox series “Empire,’’ offered the following:
“When it’s just you, sometimes you just gotta connect with God. Sometimes you don’t know the answer. You may have family members going wild, you have friends not picking up (phone calls).
Just stay connected to God.”

Graduation and free gear
Dressed in their finest apparel, the Dreamers joined their parents for an emotional yet joyous graduation ceremony. Disney provided each Dreamer with a stack of personalized business cards to both keep in touch with one another and to network with the many speakers and celebrities they’ve encountered.

Jostens provided class rings, which were presented by the parents, and Citizen donated a watch to every Dreamer. Office Depot filled backpacks with gifts, including a Texas Instrument calculator.

The surprise guest was Patti LaBelle, who serenaded the audience with “Over the Rainbow,” which was followed by recording artist Yolanda Adams, who sang the optimistic ballad, “I Believe I Can Fly.’’

For more information about the program, visit http://www.disneydreamersacademy.com.

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