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Chicago area students gain valuable skills at Disney Dreamers Academy

By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, MSJ

For the 13th year, Walt Disney World Resort (WDW), Steve Harvey and ESSENCE Magazine are hosting 100 students from across the country for the 2020 Disney Dreamers Academy. This year’s theme is “Be 100: Empowering Youth To Make Their Dreams Come True.”

Students from the Chicago area are enjoying the fellowship of other students from around the country, but more importantly attaining skills and participating in the mentoring event of a lifetime.

The 2020 Disney Dreamers Academy (DDA) is in progress now, and I have been thrilled to cover this event numerous times. The 100 students chosen, based on competitive essays, are treated to an all-expenses-paid trip to WDW to participate in the immersive, transformational four-day event that began on March 12 and ends on Sunday, March 15.

Students engage in career-oriented workshops that explore a wide range of career disciplines found at WDW, while learning life tools such as effective communication techniques, leadership skills and networking strategies.

The five Chicago-area students include Jeremiah Lewis and Jaden Maloney, who attend Epic Academy and Whitney Young, respectively. Mary Catherine Hanafee-Laplante is from Mount Prospect, and Kennedy Crye is from Joliet. Ariyana Irving is from Gary, Indiana. These students or “Disney Dreamers,” as they are called, are participating in workshops and “deep dives,” where they get comprehensive education around their chosen academic aspirations.

Disney Dreamers
Mary Catherine, Jaden Maloney, Ariyana Irving, Kennedy Crye and Jeremiah Lewis

Jeremiah is a 9th grader who dreams of creating his own best-selling video game or app. “While that is my dream, my passion is to bring a positive light to my city and show that there is more to Chicago than the negative stuff that people see on the news,” he said.

Jaden is a high school senior who enjoys participating in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) extracurricular activities and who is a proud member of Whitney Young’s Science Bowl Team, Math Team, Chemistry Olympiad Team and Physics Team. “My dream is to become a biomedical engineer and pursue a career in the research and development of biomedical technology,” Jaden said.

Mary Catherine is extremely passionate about environmental issues. “I believe that our future depends on the decisions made now to mitigate the harmful effects of climate change on the world. I work to ban pesticides from my community through my organization SpeakUp GreenUp.”

Kennedy is a senior at Minooka Community High School in Minooka, Illinois. “My goal is to change the world by touching people’s lives one at a time. I have a heart of giving back and serving others,” she said.

Ariyana attends Steel City Academy in Gary, Indiana, and appreciates the influence that her family and community have had on her. “It’s always been my dream to own my own business, and when I developed a passion for cooking it all started to make sense as to what I want to do in life,” she said.

Chef Jeff
Chef Jeff Henderson

Ariyana should be pleased to meet renowned Chef Jeff Henderson, who is a returning mentor. He has an incredible story, is delighted to be a part of DDA this year, and is one of the dozen speakers, professionals and celebrities who will inspire and instruct the students. “For Disney to look at my story and see the role that I can play is great,” he said. “The Chef Jeff family dinner is about bringing 100 Dreamers together, and one of the highlights is that I’ll be bringing 2019 Dreamer Jasmine Bell (who has competed on Top Chef Jr. and Master Chef Jr.) back to serve as my sous chef.”

Tracey D. Powell

Bell’s prompt return to DDA in the role as mentor speaks volumes about the value of this program. “After 12 successful years, we know the profound impact this program has on these students,” said Tracey D. Powell, Walt Disney World Resort vice president and Disney Dreamers Academy executive champion. “One dream can change the world, and through Disney Dreamers Academy we hope to help these amazing teens turn their dreams into reality.”

In an upcoming column, I will share more about these students’ incredible journeys through DDA.

For more information, visit Regular updates about Disney Dreamers Academy are also available on social media at Academy, Drea mersAcademy and Instagramcom/disneydreamersacademy.

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