Dream Big Academy Opens Doors to the Future

This column in Attraction, by Amelia Blades Steward, visits the faces of those who have benefited from the generous and tireless work of the nonprofits on the Mid Shore or are one of the organizations giving back in unique ways to better our world. She has been a freelance writer in our community for over 20 years and offers a glimpse into the lives of residents on the Mid Shore whom she has met along the way.

In 2010, Dwayne Lovett, an educational specialist with Dorchester County Public Schools, started the Gentlemen’s Club for elementary and middle school students in Dorchester County to help young men change their behavior and attitudes while improving their grades in school. By 2019, Dorchester County teachers and board members Chris Branch of Cambridge and Shawn Tucker of Salisbury took over, expanding it to high school students. This past spring, the two decided to expand the organization to include young women, changing the organization’s name to the Dream Big Academy.

Middle and high school students met the Hornet Mascot at the Delaware State University.

Shawn Tucker, Director of High School Programming for Dream Big Academy, is a high school English teacher. Both he and his partner Chris Branch noticed the struggle among ninth and tenth graders after they left middle school and started high school. They thought that if the students were part of a group, it may give them some checks and balances and a built-in fellowship network once they got to high school. Next, the organization hopes to expand into helping high school students transition into adulthood by developing a skill set and aligning their interests with future job opportunities – thus the organization’s new name “Dream Big Academy.”

Chris Branch, Director of Middle School Programming for the Dream Big Academy and a middle school math teacher, comments, “We want to create an opportunity for these young men and women to not only be exposed to opportunities to guide their futures, but to feel like they are a part of something more meaningful.”

The four tenets of the Dream Big Academy are fellowship, growth and development, vocational awareness, and community action. At the beginning of the school year, participants in the Dream Big Academy are given a $1,500 stipend to help with school clothes and supplies and are given an iPad. Both are funded through a grant that enables the students to start the year off on the right foot, enhancing their connection to the program and outside learning opportunities. An important aspect of the program is financial literacy where students open bank accounts with their stipends so that they can begin to understand saving money and working toward economic freedom.

High school students also have the opportunity to participate during school hours through the “Power Hour” where students can engage in school clubs. After-school programming is offered one day a week for both middle school and high school students and includes academic enrichment, team-building exercises, broad vocational awareness, and a meal provided through the Salvation Army and the Dorchester County Public Schools.

Other activities of the organization include college visits to nearby colleges, including the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Salisbury University, Morgan State University, Washington College, Delaware State University, and Chesapeake College. Visits include learning about a college’s academic programs, while also providing them with the opportunity to watch a college sports event. Through a special relationship with Washington College, students can also attend four weeks of summer programming at the college with the opportunity to stay in a college dorm during the last week.

“This has been amazing for our kids and something that has made a major impact,” says Shawn.

Dream Big Academy members learned about oyster harvesting at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science at Horn Point.

This past summer, the Academy also offered students a Summer Career Enrichment Program locally that enabled them to explore careers in public safety and emergency services (Dorchester County Emergency Medical Services and Dorchester County Sheriff’s Department), hospitality, tourism, and hotel management (The Hyatt Chesapeake), and the marine industry (Skipjack Nathan of Dorchester and University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science at Horn Point).

“Our big thing is helping our students align their interests with a job whether it be blue-collar skilled labor or college degree-based occupations. We are just really fostering growth and development within them to have them work towards developing a skill set that will allow them to be independent and salary earning,” states Chris.

“The Office of Student Services in Dorchester County has been so supportive of us. In addition to their grant funding, we specifically use them for their school counseling department and the social work department. They also help us with our college and career readiness initiative. Equally as important are the administrative team and support staff at Cambridge-South Dorchester High School and Maces Lane Middle School.”

Students receive a safety check before setting sail with the Skipjack Nathan crew.

Dream Big Academy is expanding beyond Dorchester County into other counties. The organization is also hoping to grow and collaborate with other local agencies, like the Dorchester County Health Department, on such topics as mental health and sex education, providing the resources students need. Chris and Shawn partner with other community organizations like ABM Dancing Divas, Ladies of Grace, and All4Love, to expose the students to additional activities, mentoring, and support.

“We can all work together to help our kids become functioning adults,” states Shawn.

Chris comes from a family of teachers and academic administrators, so the idea of working with kids through the Dream Big Academy was a natural fit. He shares, “I’ve been fortunate and blessed to have some great mentors in my life, including my grandfather and my dad, who were involved in youth sports and athletics for my entire life. Parent involvement was foundational for me as a young man and now as a grown man with a family.”

Dream Big Academy members took a trip to Washington, D.C. to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the White House Complex.

He adds, “I think for a lot of our kids their immediate world is small, and they only have access to the outside world via social media. So that’s why experiences are very foundational to our program because we want the kids to feel the energy of the places that they’re going to so that they know there’s something out there that allows them to feel a part of the community and contribute to the greater good of everybody.”

Shawn, who has been a basketball coach for 24 years, meets students where they are and doesn’t judge them. He explains, “In basketball, I can only influence about 15 kids at a time. We are finding that there’s a large population of kids who need what we’re doing. I’ve always been a servant leader and felt that my purpose is to help others by connecting them with things that they normally wouldn’t be connected with so that ultimately, they can live happy, successful, and joyous lives.”

Initially, both Chris and Shawn were angel investors in Dream Big Academy. In their second year, they have also gotten support from Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc.

Anyone wishing to donate to Dream Big Academy may send their donations to Mid-Shore Community Foundation in care of Dream Big Academy Re: Chris Branch or Shawn Tucker. For further information, email dreambig21613@gmail.com or visit them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/DBA21613/.

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