DREAAM House founder aims to create 'culture of young learners'

DREAAM House founder aims to create 'culture of young learners'

CHAMPAIGN — Tracy Dace often refers to the youth he works with as dreamers, but the program he launched three years ago goes way beyond that.

"They see us as do-ers," Dace said, describing how parents of the boys involved view DREAAM House — a proactive, pre-kindergarten-to-college pipeline program he started to cultivate academic excellence and leadership in black males.

The long-term goal for the more than 100 boys, whose ranks grow each year as new kindergartners enter the program, is success in college and beyond.

"I've watched several boys who have started the program and have just really grown in really positive ways. I've seen their leadership skills increase and their ability to be a peer leader, expressing and exhibiting decision-making that's influenced other kids, and ... the goal is we want it to transfer to school and home," said Dace, who will be presented the Youth Advancement award at Friday's Champaign County NAACP Freedom Forum banquet.

DREAAM — which stands for Driven to Reach Excellence and Academic Achievement for Males — started as an idea Dace pitched to church members at First Presbyterian of Champaign, which pledged the initial $20,000 to launch it, with 10 5-year-old boys in a summer setting focused on kindergarten preparation.

A year later, 15 more 5-year-olds were added. Then the program expanded into the school year, with mentors for each boy, an after-school component and year-round Saturday sports activities.

Now, Dace and staff are leading the DREAAM House full-time, operating multiple programs at four sites with a corps of volunteers, more than 100 boys in grades K-6 participating and multiple agencies providing funding.

One of the keys, he said, has been creating a family, community atmosphere. Not only does the program have a high retention rate among the boys year to year, but volunteers have stayed, too, which helps develop relationships that make a difference.

Charles Young, who spent 31 years in Student Affairs at the UI, has volunteered with DREAAM House for three summers, teaching various classes. Dace personally asked Young, who has a doctorate in policy studies, to be involved.

"He's stimulated a lot of professional people to mentor, teach, volunteer and work for DREAAM," Young said, adding that a lot of the boys don't have black male role models in their lives. "So he wanted to create a pipeline to college system."

Young said common sense and a lot of research says the earlier you start kids in any kind of program, the greater the outcome will be. That's why Dace starts with boys around kindergarten age.

"This community needs it. There are other programs around, but they don't start as early," Young said, adding that this program is Dace's ministry, a spiritual mission for him and his way of giving back to the community.

"He deserves (the award), he really does," Young said.

Dace said the program is a comprehensive model that's dosage intensive, meaning being in the lives of the boys at least three to four times a week.

It includes STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math); an after-school program five days a week; a summer enrichment program that gives boys a jump-start for the next school year; sports, including soccer, basketball, baseball and flag football; a life-coaching component; and a family-engagement component where parents can come together to learn how to promote healthy development of their boys.

"Five days a week, we are doing the traditional things, like homework help, but we also are beginning to dive deep into how do we create this culture of young learners, who are being positive and being leaders who support each other through making healthy decisions," said Dace, reiterating that the ultimate goal is college and beyond. "They need a really healthy foundation to navigate adulthood and college life."

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