Growing up in South Euclid with family ties to Collinwood High School, Mim Conway felt a special connection to the South Collinwood neighborhood. At the time, the modest community was made up of a fire station, a small playground, a church, and a few other businesses, but lacked a library or recreation center for neighborhood families. Inspired by a featured guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Conway decided to use her family inheritance to establish the Dream On Foundation.
“Nothing was very accessible to kids in their neighborhood,” Conway recalls. “I adopted a first-grade classroom and set aside money and promised the kids that the money was for them to go to school after high school – college, vocational school – any sort of education that would lead to employment that would provide a standard of living.”
Since 2009, that classroom of 25 first graders and their families from Hannah Gibbons-Nottingham Elementary School, part of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, have participated in and benefited from a variety of after-school programs, extracurricular activities, and community service projects to help keep them on track to graduate from high school in the spring of 2020.
“We’ve done a tutoring program, attended summer camps [up to] when the kids were 16 [through places like] Rainey Institute and Arts Collinwood, the National Youth Sports Camp on the campus of Case Western Reserve University, we’ve put on plays, [and] we had a jazz band for about four years,” says Conway of the Foundation’s robust programming. “This summer, we’re adding a program on financial management – how to read your paycheck stub, savings accounts, checking accounts, credit cards – and it ends with the costs of buying a car.”
Students have also participated in leadership workshops and learned tips on how to interview and keep a steady job, which many of the 25 students maintain. While some of these programs are driven by the Dream On Foundation, Conway serves more as a facilitator to connect students and parents to the programs that mean the most to them.
“With the cooperation of the parents and the kids, we try really hard to find what it is that excites that kid,” Conway says. “Then, let’s provide the avenue for them to enjoy it.”
For some, that means an overnight basketball camp. For others, it’s attending a high school that focuses on specific subjects of interest like science, architecture, or design. As of this writing, a handful of students are traveling abroad in El Salvador on a mission trip with the St. Dominic youth group in Shaker Heights. Regardless of the passion or program, the Dream On Foundation partners with families to pursue opportunities that enrich their children’s classroom education.
With graduation day less than a year away, many Dream On Foundation students have their sights set on college. As many high school juniors and their parents experience, the detailed process of exams, essay writing and lengthy applications can be complicated.
“We’ve been assisting with internships as well as summer jobs,” says Conway. “We’ve had SAT & ACT testing and meetings with guidance counselors to make sure they have the credits to get into the schools they want to go to.”
No doubt, the hours of preparation will be well worth it.
Naturally, since the students began the program, a lot of life has happened. Family members have passed. Environments have changed. Challenges have been endured. But nothing has been stronger than the determination and resiliency of the students and their families. For these future graduates, their journeys are just beginning, and our community – and the world – are better for it.