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Dreaming in Disney

Amity Paye | 4/12/2011, 4:44 p.m.

Last year, 17-year-old Brooklynite Kyla Hunter won a trip to Walt Disney World as part of the Disney Dreamers Academy. But when it came time to board the plane to Orlando, Fla., Kyla and her mom were turned away as flights were canceled due to bad weather.

"During the time, my life was kind of full of despair, and I saw the trip as a something hopeful," said Hunter. The time she had been supposed to go to Disney World was after her parents' divorce. "In life you go through a lot of obstacles and you have to use your own strength to get through them."

Hunter spent her senior year of high school writing college applications about her experience in learning to dream on her own when she was not able to go to the 2010 Dreamers Academy. At the same time, A'Dorian Murray-Thomas was writing about her life experiences in Newark, N.J., for her application to the 2011 Dreamers Academy.

In October both girls were among a group of 110 teens from across the country who received invitations to become dreamers at the fifth annual Dreamers Academy. This year over 4,000 teenagers applied for the trip of a lifetime to join Steve Harvey and Essence Magazine for a free, all-access, inspirational four-day trip to Disney World with a parent or guardian. A host of celebrities and inspirational speakers, including Essence Editor at Large Mikki Taylor, Disney imagineer Dexter Tanksley, Jonathan Sprinkles, the U.S Naval Academy's Zerbin Singleton, gospel singer Yolanda Adams, host of BET's "106 and Park" Terrence J, actors Tamera Mowry, Chris Massey and Raven-Symone and singers Ruben Studdard, Kimberly Locke and Cupid joined the young dreamers for a weekend of networking and motivational talks.

"I was so amazed when they re-invited me," said Hunter. "Now, being here, the trip does help a lot--I feel like these are the moments in my life that are going to make me who I am."

"Dreams do come true," said Harvey to the dreamers, "but it starts with respect...if you take advantage of this weekend it can change your life--don't blow the blessing."

Murray-Hunter took this advice immediately; as soon as the first round of speeches was over she jumped into an open car with Harvey and Taylor to start her celebrity-like experience at Disney World. At the start of the trip every dreamer got a new Sony camera to share moments like this on the first-ever official Dreamers Academy Facebook and Twitter pages, because their stories, from before and during the academy, are what were driving the weekend and its events.

Hunter got into the Dreamers Academy thanks to an essay about her community work in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, where she helped to stop the construction of yet another expensive high-rise apartment building and fought for the creation of a community garden instead. "I live in Brooklyn, but it's not only just where I live," she said. "We all live on this planet, so it's like, 'why not do something that's going to better where you live and where you're from?' This project was beautifying the environment and brought people together rather than the gentrification that separates us."