A selected group of high school students got a chance to be energized to achieve their dreams during a weekend symposium at Walt Disney World.
BY PENNY DICKERSON
LAKE BUENA VISTA – The genesis of their dreams are humble: a coal miner’s son from Welch, W. Va., who slept in his car for three years; an intern who drove cross-country in her Volkswagen Rabbit to work for the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico; and a high school dropout who changed the trajectory of film and theme parks with a rough sketch of a mouse.
Respectively, they are now a trifecta of success – daytime Emmy Award-winning comedian and talk show host Steve Harvey; Academy Award-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter; and film and animation icon Walt Disney, whose eponymous Walt Disney World resort hosted the Disney Dreamers Academy with Harvey and ESSENCE Magazine March 21-24 at Lake Buena Vista.
Harvey has served as a signature host of the program for 12 consecutive years. Applicants responded to essay questions about their personal stories and dreams, and 100 providential students were selected to attend along with a parent or guardian.
Known as “Disney Dreamers,” they each received an allexpenses-paid trip and an opportunity to gather a lifetime of dreams.
Twelve years a dream
Since its 2007 inception, the inclusive program has catapulted the dreams of more than 1,200 students from across the nation by exposing them to a career-discovery journey that inspires them to discover new career opportunities, pursue their dreams, and interact with participating celebrities and motivational speakers.
“My hope is these Disney Dreamers realize there are no limits to what they can achieve,” said Steve Harvey. “All the amazing people they had the chance to hear from this weekend had to start somewhere, and I am excited to see where the dreams of these 100 students take them. That is why I enjoy partnering with Disney on this program every year.”
Florida’s savvy dozen
The Sunshine State shone bright this year with the presence of 12 high school students who hailed from rural cities like Pinetta (in Madison County, Fla.) to the peninsula’s more cosmopolitan Miami.
Their dreams and interests included being Harvard-bound, establishing and serving as executive directors of nonprofit organizations, serving in ROTC and Girl Scouts and serving as an activists for social justice. They are a future neurosurgeon, educator, Army nurse, entrepreneurs, and an engineer.
The Floridians are: Kevant Gross (Reddick); Bransyl Boston (Middleburg); Kendyll Gabriel (St. Johns); Marlon Griggs (Jacksonville); Jonathan Nabaka (Miami Beach); Anthony Taylor (Miami); Grace Allen (Windermere); Faith Daise (Kissimmee); Anthony Juba-Richardson (Winter Garden); Julia Sheperd (Apopka); Gabrielle Wright (Orlando); Amiah Adams (St. Petersburg); and Jalen Sanders (Pinetta).
Central Florida dreamer wins big
Anthony Juba-Richardson is living his best life following the weekend’s Disney Dreamers Academy. The Orlando-area honor student was awarded the prestigious title, “Dreamer of the Year.”
A senior at Dr. Phillips High School, Richardson’s young life seems to be defined by excellence. In addition to being chosen as the school’s 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian for outstanding character and service, he is in the National Honor Society, National Beta Club, and when he’s not being stellar – he simply likes to play video games.
His dreams are lofty, but on the program’s first day, Juba-Richardson’s words were complimentary of his peers:
“I’ve only been here a few hours and I’ve already met so many friends and hope to keep these people around for a long time… their attitudes and work ethics are second to none. I can see why they were selected.”
A gifted pianist and songwriter, this Dreamer is founder of “Heart2Heart,” an organization that creates prayer blankets and performs informal music therapy for seniors with dementia.
Juba-Richardson was additionally awarded the Ne-Yo Entertainment Award, which invites him to both work and record with the artist.
Academy Award winning dream
When Ruth E. Carter addressed the Disney Dreamers Academy last year, she had no idea her life would transform following an Oscar win. Carter paid her dues in the film industry as a costume director collaborating on films like Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” and “Malcolm X;” Robert Townsend’s “Baps;” Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad;” Lee Daniel’s “The Butler” and many more.
But it was “Black Panther” that publicly validated Carter’s filmography dreams when she became the first African-American woman to win an Academy Award for best costume design nearly three decades after her career launched. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, she recalls a pivotal phone call she received from film director Spike Lee:
“Ruth, this is the man of your dreams!” Carter said: “It was the 1980s and I responded, ‘Denzel?!’ He said, ‘No, this is Spike. I want you to do my next movie, “School Daze.”’ So I quit my job and I started sketching and drawing.”
That spirit of risk was shared with Disney Dreamers who were fed priceless nuggets for success by celebrities that included Carter and cast members from the shows “Black’ish” and “Grown’ish.”
“I can be the best as long as I keep at it, as long as I challenge myself to learn more and be a student of my passion,” offered Carter. “You know, I was passionate about costume design and so for me to do well I had to enjoy it. I looked for the things about my passion that I liked best.”
Carter further explained that she didn’t have role models in her field while coming through the ranks. She wanted to be a role model for the Dreamers and give them the opportunity to ask important questions.
Godly gifts, blue-sky dreams
Perhaps the best keeper of dreams is Harvey himself. With acerbic humor and a raw approach, he addressed Dreamers and an audience of proud parents during a heartfelt opening ceremony and a closing commencement that often mimicked his stand-up act.
He referred to himself as an “entry-level Christian” and dubbed bloggers “thumb gangsters.” But when dreams entered the conversation, he knows how to “Be100,” the program’s thematic encouragement to be positive, to be “all in.”
“Your gift will make room for you and put you in the presence of great men. Now I may not know where that scripture is in the Bible ‘cause I done told ya’ll I’m an entry-level Christian,” joked Harvey. “Listen, you’re going to dream, you’re going to go to college, but if you don’t tie those dreams and education with the talent God gave you, you’re gonna struggle.”
ESSENCE Magazine Editor-at-Large Mikki Taylor affirmatively echoed Harvey:
“What continues to inspire me each year at Disney’s Dreamers Academy is that each class is so clear about their purpose and dreams. I can’t say I was like that at their age,” said Taylor. “These are future leaders who care about the environment, they care about community service and they care about how their dream is going to benefit others. That’s really blue-sky thinking if you will.”
Illuminate your dream
The idiom of “open-minded thinking” that Taylor references welcomes high school students who are eager to share. Applications for the 2020 class are currently being accepted, and academy alumnus Princeton Parker offers future Dreamers sage advice:
“Be authentic and genuine. People think we typecast essays, but we don’t,” explained Parker, who is currently on Harvey’s Speakers Resource team and is a stage manager and food/beverage manager at Disney California’s Adventure Park.
“We look for really compelling stories. Can you clearly identify and articulate your dream and further share how that dream reaches the world in the service of others?” asked Parker.
He added that since the beginning, Disney has been a storytelling company that both creates and illuminates dreams.
For more information visit www.disneydreamersacademy.com.
Next week – Read personal vignettes of the Florida dreamers who defy the ordinary.