U.S. Dream Academy finds ways to help amid pandemic

A family picks up supplies delivered by Dipen Bhakta, Director of the Dream Academy Houston Center and an Amway Independent Business Owner.

Diane Wallace Booker vividly remembers what unfolded on March 13, 2020, but at the time she had no inkling what lie ahead.

As chief strategy officer for the U.S. Dream Academy, Diane was notified that a few of its centers at elementary schools suddenly closed because of the coronavirus. She called an emergency staff meeting. Within hours, all seven of its centers across the country closed.

“From Washington, D.C., to California, our centers shut down one after another, with no plan for how they would reopen,” Diane recalled.

“A lot of our kids and families really depend on us in the afternoon, not just for afternoon food, but because parents are working. We asked ourselves, ‘How are we going to support our Dream Academy families?’”

In response to the ongoing global health crisis, everyday people like the staff and volunteers at U.S. Dream Academy became Everyday Heroes – and Amway is celebrating their stories. From sacrificing time with their families to sewing hundreds of face masks, these Everyday Heroes gave of themselves to serve and bring joy to others during trying times.

Two Dream Academy students stand outside wearing masks and winter coats.

Committed to finding a way

The nonprofit Dream Academy is a lifeline for hundreds of kids who participate in its afterschool and mentoring programs, which focus on skill building, character building and dream building.

Very quickly, the staff organized an aggressive outreach plan to connect with families. “Phone calls, texts, emails – our commitment was to really show up in the lives of our kids and families so they knew we cared,” Diane said.

They also wanted to provide resources to help bridge the gaps. The kids in Dream Academy programs come from challenging circumstances, such as having an incarcerated parent. In the beginning, some families needed help with everyday necessities like food, diapers and bottled water.

When parents lost jobs because of the pandemic, the financial impact on families was devastating. “They may already have been living paycheck to paycheck,” Diane said.

Dream Academy staff connected parents to local assistance such as low-cost internet, utility bill waivers, food pantries and housing shelters.

A Dream Academy student stands outside her home while receiving supplies from a Dream Academy Mentor Coordinator.

Giving students what they need

The next hurdle was technology. Dipen Bhakta is an Amway Independent Business Owner (IBO) and also the director of the Dream Academy’s center in Houston. He and his team contacted the parents of every single student they work with to figure out how to best help them.

They asked families about their access to technology so they could help students continue to study and learn.

“Did they have a computer? How was their internet speed? We knew those things would impact the kids’ abilities to stay focused and engaged with their schoolwork,” Dipen said. “We wanted to identify all the ways we could support them.”

Amway donated computer tablets, which were given to families in need. Using computers and internet connections, the Dream Academy staff and volunteer mentors reached out and connected with parents.

Staff also began meeting with students online. Not only did the technology help kids keep up academically, but it gave them a way to hang out together, play games and have fun safely during the pandemic.

Dream Academy Houston Director and Amway IBO Dipen Bhakta and Dream Academy Mentor Coordinator Walter Hull talk with a Dream Academy parent via Zoom on an iPad.

Making virtual connections

Mentors connected with students over video calls, tutoring them and helping them cope with the challenges of the pandemic. A Dream Academy virtual summer camp was launched so kids could take classes in cooking, gardening, pet care, hip hop dance, Spanish, art and science – all from their homes.

Virtual parties were hosted by the Dream Academy on Fridays, complete with gift card prizes and special pizza deliveries for kids who completed their academic checklist, which had been moved online.

“We’re creating accountability,” Dipen said. “The kids had to make sure they completed the checklist by the deadline to get that incentive. It keeps them motivated.”

Keeping communication open

Dream Academy staff and mentors also used video calls to give kids a chance to talk about how the pandemic was impacting them.

“We’ve been asking the kids how they are feeling,” Dipen said. “We want to build their emotional vocabulary and help them express themselves. It’s so key during the pandemic.”

No matter how long the pandemic lasts, the Dream Academy staff is committed to supporting students and families through the crisis. “We’ve really made these families the priority, and so many parents have expressed such gratitude to us,” Diane said. “We will emerge strong from this.”

Be inspired by others

You can read more great stories at Amway Connections about our IBOs, employees and philanthropic partners who are leading with their hearts during the pandemic taking positive action during the pandemic.


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