By Shandra Hill Smith
Their interests are assorted — pharmacy, nursing, public speaking, music. But over the course of four days this March, these metro Atlanta students shared at least one thing in common: Each experienced what they count as a turning point in their young lives as they look ahead to their chosen professional paths. These 17 metro Atlanta high schoolers — among 19 from Georgia — make up 100 students selected around the nation for the 2012 Disney’s Dreamers Academy with Steve Harvey and ESSENCE magazine.
Chosen from around 4,700 applicants nationwide, the students received an all-expenses-paid trip to the Walt Disney World Resort. They traveled to Florida from March 8 to 11 for the four-day program that inspires youth to dream big and get started on their career goals. The program — hosted by entertainer/broadcaster/author/game show host Steve Harvey — marked its fifth year, with 500 high school students having participated since 2008. A panel of judges that included celebrities looked for students who demonstrate curiosity, compassion, creativity and leadership skills when selecting Dreamers.
Students engaged in activities that allowed for hands-on participation and networking opportunities with industry professionals. Interactive career workshops covered areas of entertainment, entrepreneurship, medicine, culinary arts, fashion and design and creative inspiration from Walt Disney Imagineering, the creative wizards behind Disney’s theme parks and attractions.
Dreamers heard from Harvey, who hosts the nationally syndicated “The Steve Harvey Morning Show” radio show. He urged students not to ignore their gift. “Your gift is the thing that you do the absolute best with the least amount of effort,” says Harvey.
Other speakers included: gospel artist/radio personality Yolanda Adams; Mikki Taylor, ESSENCE editor-at-large, Chef Jeff Henderson, an author who has hosted his own Food Network show and served as executive chef at Bellagio in Las Vegas; CNN Anchor Soledad O’Brien and others.
“Disney’s Dreamers Academy has been more than I could ever imagine,” says Alexis Warren, a sophomore at Mount Zion High School in Jonesboro.
The 16 year old, who has a passion for writing and public speaking, believes she has the gift of gab. “I love, love, love to speak. I have a gift that when I walk into a room — I can command it, by the tone of my voice, what I have to say,” says Warren, the sophomore class president who has participated in cross-country team, swim team and track and field.
“I feel I can be influential someday. I want to use my gift in order to do something positive. I want to use my gift in such a way that people can be inspired to use their own gift — such as the speakers we had; they all used their gifts to inspire us.”
Warren gets a jump start at that this June when she attends the annual convention of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). During DDA, she was surprised to learn she’d won a scholarship that would cover all expenses for the convention to take place in New Orleans.
For Tyra Winn, 17, a senior at Fulton Science Academy Charter High School in Alpharetta, Disney’s Dreamers Academy gave her a different way of looking at her past — one in which she’s had to overcome some obstacles, she says. “One message that has stuck with me is you can’t blame your past on your future,” says Winn, who plans to attend Florida Southern College to study nursing.
“It’s been an amazing experience. It’s shown me there are many opportunities in life. They’re out there; you just have to take them.”
“I wasn’t really expecting the amount of information I’ve [received] from the Disney’s Dreamers Academy,” adds Eric Branch, a senior at the Academy of Research and Medical Sciences, a magnet program at South Cobb High School in Austell.
Branch plans to study chemistry and has dreams to become a pharmacist. “I’m interested in pharmacy because I love to pay attention to details. I like to calculate and I like the exact science of pharmacy.”
On their final day, the Class of 2012 took part in an emotional commencement ceremony where students received a class ring from Jostens and words of encouragement along with a performance from recording artist Jordin Sparks. Sparks, the season six winner of “American Idol,” will co-star in the movie “Sparkle,” set to release this fall.
It was during commencement that Isaiah Jones, 16, a sophomore at Collins Hill High School in Lawrenceville, learned of his DDA honor: a Super Star Award for Creativity, as he demonstrated talent in graphic design and music.
Jones, who overcame health challenges, including epilepsy, scarlet fever and a cyst on his vocal chords, plans to attend the Atlanta Institute of Music or Full Sail Univeristy in Winter Park, Fla.
With a couple of years left before she graduates high school, going forward, Alexis Warren says she’ll make it her mission to make sure as many youth as possible know about Disney’s Dreamers Academy.
“This has been the opportunity of a lifetime,” says Warren. “I’m so thankful.”
Photos by Shandra Hill Smith and Doug Smith