Youth Dreamers start new chapter

A group of young people banded together more than a decade ago to overcome public opinion, personal doubt and bureaucracy and build a safe space where Baltimore's youths could thrive and be recognized as productive members of the community.

But the Youth Dreamers recently realized they couldn't overcome their biggest hurdle: reality.

The Dreamers started as a small, elective middle-school class and became one of the most successful youth-run organizations in the city, drawing national attention. Now they no longer have a home.

Amid a funding slump, the organization has been forced to rent out the home it built. The place not only provided space for meetings and programs for hundreds of youngsters but also represented what they set out to prove 12 years ago — that a group of students could congregate for positive change in Baltimore.

"It's hard to see the walls so empty, the house so quiet," Deja Joseph, a Dreamers board member, said on a recent visit, as she sat in the house's "Inspiration Room," whose bright green walls have been stripped of posters full of goals and to-do lists. "It was everything we were. Now it's everything we're not."

The Victorian painted in pastels still stands out when you turn onto Carswell Street, a street lined with traditional rowhouses in the Coldstream Homestead Montebello neighborhood.

But missing are the students who came to the house to take part in homework clubs, tutoring, mentoring, advocacy projects and fundraisers.

The Youth Dreamers started with nine students out of their classroom at the Stadium School, eventually moving to the house and serving more than 600 youths.

The Dreamers designed, gutted, painted and decorated the youth center over six years, and some of the permanent fixtures and hand-painted murals remain.

"It's hard to give up something you worked so hard for, because we did this," said Joseph, a junior at City College who joined the Youth Dreamers in fifth grade. "But us losing the house isn't us losing the organization. The Youth Dreamers are still here. And we are not done."

Five students and six adults still sit on the board of Youth Dreamers, and will continue to meet at the house once a month.

They rented the house, called the "Dream House," to the Baltimore Teacher Network for at least 18 months. They plan to use the rent money to establish a college scholarship program.

The group began to experience funding problems about two years ago, said Kristina Berdan, executive director of the Youth Dreamers. The recession prompted foundations and other benefactors to be more selective, and many chose initiatives that could produce results such as improved test score data.

While the Dreamers had raised more than $1 million through grants, donations and fundraisers since it started in 2001, the group couldn't afford to keep operating out of the house. It cost about $200,000 a year to run the nonprofit organization.

Adding to the financial woes, the Dreamers' partnership with the Stadium School had come to an end. The school's test scores had declined, and it chose to eliminate courses that weren't part of its core curriculum, like the projects class that gave the Youth Dreamers its start. The school helped the Dreamers in ways such as paying Berdan's salary.

Berdan, who taught in the city for 13 years, challenged the students in her projects class to come up with a tangible solution to the violence that had been plaguing the city.

They decided to build a place where youths could take refuge after school, and make it fun and useful enough that they would choose to go there instead of the streets.

So the Dreamers bought a boarded-up home for $12,500 and rehabbed it with nearly $325,000 they raised through letter-writing campaigns, fundraisers and a $70,000 grant secured by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

The group successfully fought zoning laws and opposition from homeowners whofeared the house would attract unruly crowds.

But after the house opened, the Dreamers were honored with a City Council resolution and won over the neighbors, who eventually began bringing sodas to their block parties, mowed the lawn when they weren't there, and played in the horseshoe pit on the Dream House lawn.

Kerry-Ann Malcolm, Joseph's mother and a city educator, recalled her daughter coming home covered in dirt and paint from working at the house, where she would later spend the majority of her free time and sometimes even sleep over.

"It went from a project to a passion to 'I can't live without this house,' " Malcolm said. "They all just felt such a sense of ownership of everything around them."

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke recalled the stir the Youth Dreamers caused when they came to her district and how they easily joined the community.

Clarke, who attended the grand opening of the Dream House, said she sees the funding woes as an "interruption," not an end.

"When the youth are in their Dream House, they are pursuing all kinds of academic and other opportunities," Clarke said. "We talk about the whole child and holistic education, but when an opportunity like this comes along, it doesn't fit the mold, and the molds don't adjust to make it happen."

Clarke said she believes the Youth Dreamers will occupy the house once again.

"We are all devastated that they are pushing the pause button," Clarke said. "It's a loss for the community, for the youth, and the youth who would have benefited, who in the next year and half won't have the opportunity. But there has to be a way to pull this back together."

The Dreamers are writing a book to document their nine-year journey. They still get calls from across the country from youth groups — they're heading to Maine this month — to share how they did it.

"I feel like even with the house gone, we achieved the dream," said Iman Cuffie, a Youth Dreamer since seventh grade and a senior at Western High School. "People invite us places, and they actually want to hear what we have to say."

The group is raising money to publish the book, titled "I Am Not A Test Score: Lessons Learned from Dreaming," through Otter Bay Books in January. The writing is a collaboration of six young authors and two adults, including Berdan.

"We were looking for a sense of closure because we learned more from the process than the success of the house," Berdan said. "And we felt that no matter what happened, we needed to make sure people knew that."

Youth Dreamer Keyani Kenny got a series of denial letters from colleges because of her SAT scores.

Before she got a letter from Salem College in North Carolina, she called an admissions counselor there and pleaded her case — something she couldn't have imagined doing if she hadn't started public speaking and writing grants when she joined the Youth Dreamers in seventh grade.

"Since I've been in Youth Dreamers, I've been speaking up about things I'm passionate about, and I'm passionate about my education," said Kenny. "I just let her know that I know my test scores weren't where they should have been, but I needed to be in school, that I was determined and I was going to make it."

Now a sophomore at Salem, Kenny said she is "heartbroken" that the group lost the house but believes that perhaps it was meant to be, to give the Dreamers time to spread their message farther and wider.

"We don't want it to be about bashing the school system; that's not our goal," she said. "It's more to bring to light these numbers affect too many people's lives, and are why we're in this situation."

Berdan said that though the future is uncertain, the Youth Dreamers stand for determination and self-sufficiency.

"We are not looking to be saved," she said. "We're looking to be sustainable."

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