- This story originally appeared in the September 2023 education issue of COMO Magazine.
Mentorship, community, success, and inspiration come alive at Dream Tree Academy.
Founder Ray Hall and his “dream team,” made up of Karmella Wright and Eddie Pilot, nurture inspiration through Dream Tree Academy — an after-school program designed to inspire and support kids from underserved areas of Columbia.
Dream Tree Academy offers kids ages 11 to 18 a unique curriculum focused on youth entrepreneurship and workforce development. Its mission is to provide engaging educational programs for a culturally diverse youth group, focusing on the arts as well as music, graphic design, financial literacy, job readiness, and mental health.
The academy’s website states that it “strives to help our youth to become dynamic individuals by supporting their educational goals and immersing them in experiences that prepare them to live a cultural way of life. We strive to educate, inspire, and advocate for our students to become self-sustainable entrepreneurs.”
Where Dreams are Made
Established in 2019, Dream Tree is the product of Hall’s long-time passion.
“Music and the arts were my outlets when I was young,” he explains. “Going into the music studio and having that passion is what saved me, kept me out of the streets. It was a passion I’ve always thought about sharing but just didn’t ever take the opportunity to do so.”
The impetus came when Hall was in his twenties.
“I finally decided to take that passion off the back burner,” he says.
Hall, Wright, and Pilot have been together since the academy’s inception. Aside from financial literacy and job readiness, music and the arts have been the focus of Dream Tree Academy since the start. Offering music lessons, podcast production, access to music studio space, photography, fully equipped computer labs with 3D printers, screen presses, and more allows young people a chance to explore new opportunities they might not have had access to.
“We’ll offer anything they set their hearts on and want to try,” Wright notes, adding that the curriculum is always evolving. “We’re constantly asking the kids what they want to do, what they are passionate about and we pivot from there. That’s how our podcast production class started, it’s what the kids were excited about.”
Outside of the regular curriculum, Dream Tree Academy tries to set its students up for success by offering them access to tools and opportunities they might not have known were available. Those resources come in a variety of ways. Dream Tree travels with its students to local businesses such as auto mechanic shops or similar small businesses to give students hands-on experience and knowledge of career paths that may not require a college education. Dream Tree students take part in an aviation course in Kansas City that teaches them drone simulation and gives them the opportunity to fly in an airplane over Arrowhead and Kauffman stadiums.
When it comes to financial literacy courses, Dream Tree goes beyond just teaching how to create a budget and balance a checkbook. The academy partners with Judy Baker of Student Educational and Economic Development (SEED) Success. SEED works with youth and families to “seed” and grow college/career incentive savings accounts to help with educational aspirations beyond high school.
Students earn money through participation in certain events, academics, school attendance, and other personal development learning — meaning students leave Dream Tree Academy with money in a personal and business account. Dream Tree Academy offers students assistance in securing business licensing and creating business plans and hosts mock interviews for students to be prepared to enter the workforce.
“It isn’t about the kids finding motivation to succeed. They are motivated,” Pilot says. “It’s about helping them find something to be passionate about. We’ve got good kids, really good kids, that we get to have front-row seats to watch them find their spark, realize that they have options in life, that they can have hope for their future, they can set a goal, they can dream big — and we can get them to that goal.”
Keeping the Dream Alive
Dream Tree Academy is funded by grants and donations, and is entirely volunteer-run.
“We have volunteers of all ages, races, backgrounds,” Hall says. “We want to make sure we have somebody for everybody. We want our kids to have a wide variety of perspectives. It gives us the best chance to connect with each one of them.”
He continues, “We have a good team but we’re always trying to build on that team. We are always in communication with [Columbia Public Schools Superintendent] Dr. Yearwood, our home school communications, counselors, the families — we get everyone involved in the child’s life. If we are all wrapping our arms around each kid, we ensure each kid stays on the right path to success.”
Families that want their child to be considered for enrollment, and anyone interested in volunteering, can visit the academy’s website for more information.
“We’re going to keep on truckin’ no matter what, keep pouring into these kids because we have to,” Hall adds. “We want what’s best for this community. We make the change by being the change for these kids. We’re just going to keep showing up for our kids.”
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