Local mentoring program takes national prizes

By Jeremy C. Fox | 11/23/2010, 6:40 a.m.
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.