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Local mentoring program takes national prizes

By Jeremy C. Fox
Local mentoring program takes national prizes
Jermaine Fernandez, 10, and Antonio Martin, 11, shoot hoops at Orchard Gardens with intern Ana Mascagni and Resource Development Director Josh Warren of the DREAM Program.

Good deeds have paid off for a Roxbury-based mentoring project.

The DREAM Program was named the Philanthropic Small Business of the Year and Most Influential College Student Organization at the second annual Classy Awards. The Nov. 7 awards ceremony was hosted by StayClassy, a free service that helps nonprofits use social media to connect to supporters and raise funds.  

Josh Warren, resource development director for DREAM’s Boston branch, said the event in San Diego, Calif., had the feel of the Academy Awards or MTV’s Video Music Awards.

“It’s a huge, huge event where they have photographers, red carpet, things like that, but which actually just celebrates philanthropy and the good work that folks are doing all over the place,” Warren said.

The Classy Awards recognize philanthropic achievements in eight major cities across the country, with one winner selected for each of 10 categories. DREAM joined two other Boston-based organizations that took top honors: Chris Cares International, which won Volunteer of the Year, and Strong Women, Strong Girls, which won Most Philanthropic Business. Each of these awards comes with a $10,000 prize in cash and in-kind services.

DREAM’s Executive Director Mike Loner said the national recognition shows that their mentoring model is effective and helps draw attention to the organization’s successes.  

“It’s an amazing achievement both for DREAM as a whole and especially for the Boston office that they’ve been able to make such a huge impact in such a short period of time down there,” Loner said.

Founded in 1999 by students at Dartmouth College, the acronym DREAM stands for Directing through Recreation, Education, Adventure, and Mentoring. The program pairs up children and teens from low-income housing communities with college-student mentors who take the children to museums and sports events, help with schoolwork and expose them to the campus environment.

“We’re always trying to build on their experiences  that they’re having with us, so that once the children are high school aged, they’re thinking about college, they’re thinking about their larger life goals, and they’re raising the bar for what they think is possible in their lives,” said Warren.

Based in Winooski, Vt., DREAM expanded to Boston just last year. Here it works with children from Orchard Gardens, who are paired up with students from Boston University, and Madison Park Village, who work with students from Northeastern.  

Currently, 43 children in Boston are working with mentors, and the organization is now recruiting mentors at Harvard, who will be matched with kids from Cambridge’s Putnam Gardens community.

DREAM came to Boston on an invitation from the Madison Park Development Corporation (MPDC), and staff members there say the program has been a great benefit to the families it serves.

 “It’s really been a positive experience in terms of these Northeastern and BU students coming in and being matched up with our young people,” said Kevin Johnson, director of community action for MPDC. “It’s about caring adults establishing healthy relationships.”

The goal is to show the children that higher education is an option and help give them tools to prepare for it, but mentors say they benefit from the program as much as the kids they help.

“It’s really a stress reliever,” said Kevin Spates, a Northeastern student who has been a mentor for about a year. “I really enjoy being a part of it.”

Spates said it’s a great feeling to be able to show kids what college is like and get them to think about their own chances for higher education.

“Most of them hadn’t even seen Northeastern campus before we started,” Spates said. “And they literally live right across the street. So it’s definitely a great thing just bringing them over and showing them what their potential could be and what they can do with their lives.”

Program participant Durelle Marshall, 13, who lives in Orchard Gardens, said that his mentor has helped him bring up his grades and think more seriously about what he wants to do with his future. But hanging out with him is also a lot of fun.

“I enjoy myself, every time I go with them,” Marshall said. “It’s like, I’ve never been in that world before.”

Marshall said the experience has made him more mature and built his self-esteem.

“I feel much better about myself. I feel more confident,” he said.

It even has him thinking about how someday he could help inspire the next generation.

“It makes you want to — when you grow up and get that age — it makes you want to mentor other students,” he said. “Try to keep the community safe.”

For his father Derrick Marshall, his participation in the DREAM Program has meant a chance for Durelle Marshall to see the world differently and explore his options.

“It really gives them a different light on life,” he said. “Teaches them positive things and motivates them to do what they need to do in life. I’m 38 years old, and when I was 13, we never had anything like the kids have today. Opportunities. And I love that. It’s really awesome.”