The Dream of DREAM: a mentoring program grounded in reality

January is National Mentoring Month, and we are highlighting a number of perspectives on mentoring, events, and ways you can get involved in the field. Today’s post is from Synda Mahan, Highland Street Corps Ambassador of Mentoring at Cambridge Family & Children's Service. It is a profile on Ignite Award winner Chad Butt from The DREAM program.

On January 16, 2013, Chad Butt was awarded the Ignite Award from Mass Mentoring Partnership. The award honors a mentoring program staff member who has demonstrated a commitment to motivating and inspiring people to become advocates of mentoring, and has gone above and beyond to advance mentoring in Massachusetts.

ChadChad attended Dartmouth College, dreaming of becoming a teacher. It was there that he found DREAM (Directing through Recreation, Education, Adventure, and Mentoring), a mentoring program that empowers youth from affordable housing neighborhoods to recognize their options, make informed decisions, and achieve their dreams. This mentoring program was the biggest part of Chad’s college experience.

Since Chad’s parents were both teachers, in his home the dinnertime conversation centered on how his parents were affected by the students in their classrooms. These discussions instilled in Chad a strong desire to create sustainable experiences that benefit others.  That long-rooted desire prompted him to join DREAM as a mentor because he wanted to “get out of the college bubble,” make a difference in people’s lives, and help others have the experience he had in college. DREAM made such an impact on Chad that 13 years later he has his dream job as its program director.

DREAM began in 1998, several years before Chad’s arrival at Dartmouth College. At that time, an AmeriCorps volunteer had been given the task of providing after-school programming to 100 children living in a nearby affordable housing development. The volunteer connected with students at Dartmouth College, and the students organized themselves into a weekly mentoring program for the kids that became known as DREAM.

Today, DREAM mentors recruit other mentors, with well-established DREAM programs having much more interest than space for new mentors.  Those wishing to become mentors come from different majors and have different hobbies, but they are brought together by their mutual excitement in working with youth.

The excitement for the mentee starts early and is demonstrated in the matching process. It starts when a potential mentor asks a child, “Can I be your mentor?”  This empowers the youth and gives choices to kids who often have little decision-making power in their own lives. In essence, these kids are being told by adults that, “I think you’re awesome and I want to hang out with you!” which is a cool experience for a child to have!

DREAM uses a “Village Mentoring Model” where college students are matched in a one-on-one relationship with a child. Matches meet simultaneously in a group setting either at the college or in the community.  In addition to the numerous benefits of mentoring, these kids are also exposed to a college setting.  This unique twist on mentoring helps to demystify college and makes it a place that these kids can envision themselves being in the future.

DREAM has a ‘dream big’ mentality and encourages youth to pick a goal and see it through to the end. Participants in their High Adventure program have set goals as lofty as taking group trips to California – and most impressively, they’ve turned these dreams into reality! But because these are goals chosen by the kids in the program, the kids also get to try their hand at the finer details of such endeavors. They research and create itineraries of daily activities. They plan the transportation and the meals. This is their project and through this effort these kids realize, “If I work towards something, I can achieve it.”

DREAM_photoAs the youth achieved their goals, Chad realized that DREAM had to adapt and grow. Eventually, DREAM expanded to 13 colleges in Vermont under Chad’s direction. It was at that point that Chad realized the need for DREAM to establish a new office.  Boston, with its numerous colleges, proved to be a promising choice to continue sharing his vision of DREAM being a resource to youth and their families. DREAM has also purchased fifty acres of property along Metcalf Pond in Fletcher, VT, the perfect location for Camp DREAM. The camp has running water, an organic garden, a 9-hole Frisbee golf course, a kitchen, a dock which supports water activities, two lean-tos, and a 2-story tree house complete with a fire pole!

Camp DREAM now focuses on self-reliance, strengthening of interpersonal skills, building of friendships, and environmental education. These goals are also reflected in management style of the camp: when DREAM realized it would be cheaper to buy a used school bus and convert it to run on old vegetable oil for field trips, that’s precisely what happened and Chad learned to drive it!

Chad says that one of the best parts of his time with DREAM was being present as DREAM achieved its dream:  this past school year, a former mentee entered college and joined DREAM as a mentor.  It means a lot to Chad that DREAM has seen a mentoring cycle come full circle.