For three decades, the "I Have A Dream" program has helped thousands of students from lower-income families realize their dream of going to college or university unencumbered by the ever-rising costs of tuition. Soon, some 40 young students in Blaine County will be offered the same opportunity.
Part-time Wood River Valley resident Kenneth Lewis and several other dedicated locals have established a new nonprofit organization called the "I Have A Dream" Foundation—Idaho, which intends to "adopt" a group of elementary-school children in Blaine County and put them on track to a paid-for tenure in higher education.
"This is about giving students access to higher education," Lewis said. "And we've seen that there is a population of children in Blaine County who aren't getting the help they need and aren't moving on to college."
Lewis—a longtime businessman in maritime trade who splits his time between Idaho and Portland, Ore.—started a successful "I Have A Dream" program in Portland that has supported more than 900 low-income students, which the organization calls "Dreamers." The Oregon organization founded the first rural "I Have A Dream" program, in which most of the Dreamers are children of migrant farm workers. Lewis said that in the last Portland class to complete the program, 90 percent graduated high school and 80 percent went to college.
Now, Lewis and his partners have set the foundation to do similar work in Blaine County. Lewis, president of the new Idaho "I Have A Dream" organization, and board Vice Chair Stephen Schultz have garnered the support of some well-known Blaine County residents to bring the project to fruition. They are serving on the board of directors along with valley residents Al Hackel, Carol Harlig, Beverly Reeves and Reginald Reeves. The group is looking for five more interested people to serve on the board.
The organization plans to announce next month which grade from a Blaine County school they have chosen to adopt based on its needs.
"It's not just an emotional decision," Schultz said. "We want to take the neediest school, and there are metrics to help make the right selection."
After that, the organization will commit to assisting the children in various ways to help them through school and dramatically raise the odds that they will complete high school and move on to higher education. Program leaders cooperate with School District officials, businesses, religious organizations and civic groups to provide Dreamers with the academic and social services they need to succeed. Upon high school graduation, each Dreamer receives guaranteed tuition assistance for higher education. The foundation plans to hire a full-time project coordinator in Blaine County to manage the work.
To do that, the organization needs to raise $2.5 million in increments of some $250,000 per year for 10 years. Lewis and Schultz have each committed $10,000 a year for 10 years and hope other philanthropists will match their donations. All told, the group has raised more than $50,000 to get the program up and running.
"We make the financial commitment up front," Schultz said. "We're not going to pull the rug out from under these kids."
And, Schultz said, the need is clear. The "I Have A Dream" Foundation estimates that only half of students in low-income communities in the United States are expected to finish high school and only one out of seven will graduate from college.
"They have to buy in," Schultz said. " But if they do, we can help them."
How to get involved
There are several ways that interested people can help the new "I Have a Dream" Foundation of Idaho, based in the Wood River Valley. The nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization is seeking monetary contributions to support its mission of sending local students to college. It is also looking for mentors, volunteers to read to young students and five more people to serve on the board of directors. "We have different levels of involvement based on what people want to do," said organization Vice Chair Stephen Schultz. To get involved, call President Kenneth Lewis at 726-6996 or Schultz at 721-3584.
How did it all start?
The "I Have A Dream" program was launched in 1981, when founder Eugene Lang returned to his alma mater, P.S. 121 in East Harlem, N.Y., to address the graduating sixth-grade class. When he learned that three-quarters of the school's students would probably drop out of school, Lang promised college tuition to every sixth-grader who graduated from high school. This promise sparked a national movement that now stretches from coast to coast. Currently, more than 3,500 Dreamers are on the pathway to college in 17 states, Washington, D.C., and New Zealand, following some 11,000 Dreamers who came before them.