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.”
Murray-Thomas’ story was a very different one. She had seen the discrepancies in education opportunities in her hometown of Newark, N.J., and had applied to Northfield Mount Hermon, a prestigious preparatory school in Massachusetts. Earning a better education and thousands of dollars in scholarships, Murray-Thomas discovered a new issue in her community.
“There is this terrible standard that, depending on where you are from, or the color of your skin, you can’t be interested in certain things,” she said. “For example, Newark has a lot of stereotypes that people get caught up in, but it doesn’t matter what people say and it doesn’t matter what the standards are, you have to use your voice and use your power and that’s what I’ve been trying to do.” She is interested in political science, journalism and psychology, and now speaks to youth groups and works with children in Newark to encourage them to step out of their stereotypes as well.
Every teen at the Dreamers Academy had their own inspirational story, but Tracey Powell, executive champion for the Disney Dreamers Academy, explained, “What your stories all have in common is the phenomenal courage behind the dreaming.” Throughout the weekend the teens were encouraged to dream even bigger as they attended speeches and events that lasted from 7 a.m. until 1 a.m. the next morning.
To help them find their dreams, dreamers participated in “skimmer experiences,” guided by Disney representatives through the park in an academy-wide scavenger hunt. Murray-Thomas joined her reps Tom Hartwig and Nicole Brown, who went above and beyond, bringing the dreamers to all the best rides and setting up tours with Disney employees behind the scenes to see how the vehicles for the Everest and Dinosaur rides were constructed, powered and safety-checked behind the scenes. This meant the dreamers knew they were safe and skipped the lines to jump on rides throughout the park.
“It’s better than being a celebrity,” said Murray-Thomas to one of her new friends after riding the Dinosaur ride in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. “They probably don’t even get to see as much as we do.”
She was right; each day, dreamers participated in Diver experiences, in which they were introduced to aspects of Disney World within the parameters of their specific interests. Hunter studied journalism, and joined reporters from across the country in interviewing other dreamers and covering the events of the weekend, and later dove into Disney fashion with a behind-the-scenes tour of the Disney World creative costuming department and a stylist challenge and fashion show.
Murray-Thomas tried the journalism and sports Diver experiences, meeting NFL athletes who were in town for the ESPN-Disney weekend events and designing sneakers with Dwayne Edwards, the footwear design director for Jordan Shoes who was one of the first African-Americans to design sneakers and one of the youngest people ever to break into the footwear industry.
Still other dreamers dove into animation/graphics, engineering/imagineering, music production and more. And while the kids were learning in the parks, their parents were given some much-needed free time.
“We shopped, we went to different parks, we looked around, we ate a lot,” said Hunter’s mom Shereice Hunter. “But this was just a great experience for the kids.” Murray-Thomas’ mom, Iana Murray, agreed and said, “I’m almost at a loss for words in terms of trying to capture all the different things that it was for my daughter. It was sad, it was happy, it was optimistic, it was hopeful–it was a lot of different things.” While dreamers benefited from the weekend’s inspirational speakers, their parents did too, and Murray said the experience gave her the push she needed to pursue her dream of getting her doctorate.
As the weekend came to a close, many dreamers and their parents were reminded of one message, “The secret to making your dreams come true is not deciding what you want to get, it’s about deciding who you want to serve,” said Sprinkles, a motivational speaker who was later voted the most inspirational speaker of the weekend.
Murray-Thomas took this calling to heart and said she already plans to speak to other girls in Newark about her experiences, forwarding all the messages she was given last weekend on to other young members of her community. “I’m from Newark, New Jersey, and I want to bring all of this back home with me. I’m ready,” she told Raven-Symone and all who attended the final commencement ceremony for the 2011 Dreamers Academy.