The Dream Leader’s program began in the most impoverished area in Chicago. At Harlan High School, 1 out of 5 students are homeless, living in cars, shelters or with friends. There are 12,400 homeless students in the Chicago Public Schools, 38,000 in Illinois, 1.7 million in U.S.
Dreams For Kids invited a group of Harlan students to be our first leaders. They were passionate and inspired by the opportunity. The first thing they wanted to know was who they could help. Dreams For Kids introduced them to ICRE, a state run facility for youth with disabilities. ICRE students reside and attend school in the facility. The Harlan students wanted to know more about them since none of them knew a peer with a disability.
The Harlan students were told ICRE students were currently fundraising to go deep sea diving in Key Largo. Dreams For Kids had sent their friends there the year before in our Extreme Recess program. Those who made the trip came back and said “it was like flying.” They said when they left their wheelchairs for the deep sea; they felt free for the first time. Now they wanted to fly too, but, as we told the Harlan kids, it’s hard to fundraise for yourself.
The Harlan students gathered together to discuss the need. When they came back they all handed us their lunch money and asked if we could give it to the kids at ICRE. A 14 year old boy said he knew it would not be enough and asked if they could fundraise. In one week, in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, they took to the streets raising $1,000. We wanted to show them that generosity is rewarded, so we had it matched.
We went to ICRE and handed them $2,000 and told them they were going to Key Largo and their peers were sending them. The ICRE kids were emotional and almost immediately said, “Who can we help?” We showed them a film we brought of kids in the Africa who, like most kids in the developing world, had no wheelchairs and were crawling in the dust. All the ICRE kids cried. They were sitting in the only thing they owned and could not believe someone in the world did not have one.
That Saturday, the ICRE kids set up a card table on Roosevelt Road, had a bake sale, and raised $540. They sent two wheelchairs to Kenya.
It was in Harlan and ICRE that we discovered the heart of our program and the capacity, desire, and passion of the most unexpected leaders. They reminded us that everyone has something to give, and that the most isolated kids in the world were desperate to be the solution instead of being seen as the problem.