Inaugural DDA Virtual Program Series ends with festive event

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Class of 2020’s 100 teens – five from the Chicago area – are first to experience virtual career workshops and other sessions designed to help them dream BIG.

By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.

A stirring production, tributes from beloved celebrities and powerful musical performances marked the December 12 commencement ceremony for the first Disney Dreamers Academy Virtual Program Series. One hundred teens from across the country—five from the Chicago area—were feted and celebrated for completing the 12-week, one-of-a-kind program of live and on-demand video sessions designed to help them jumpstart their life goals and pursue their dreams.

Inspired by the Disney Dreamers Academy (DDA) program that has taken place at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida annually since 2008, the virtual program was available free to the 2020 class to continue educating and inspiring students during the pandemic. The inaugural virtual event kicked off September 26, 2020, launching the series of 12 weekends filled with engaging presentations by Disney leaders, other business professionals and celebrities.

Co-host Anthony Anderson

For commencement, Disney Dreamers and their parents/guardians were treated to a delightful production, complete with special performances by and tributes from beloved celebrities such as Anthony Anderson from ABC’s “black-ish,” actress Yvette Nicole Brown and Arica Himmel of ABC’s “mixed-ish.” Anderson, Brown and Himmel also joined Disney Signature Experiences Vice President and Disney Dreamers Academy Executive Champion Tracey D. Powell as event co-hosts.

Brown spoke about all the adversities of today and urged the graduates to go the distance “with a hero’s courage.”

Anderson encouraged the Dreamers. “Change is coming, Disney Dreamers. You are the change makers. You are answering the call to be servant leaders. Lawyers, doctors, educators or entrepreneurs. You have demonstrated a heart to serve. You are part of the generation that’s taking to the streets to see service by the people and for the people. Brick and mortar companies are no longer the only measures of success. A mind is a terrible thing to waste but a wonderful thing to invest in.”

Co-host Yvette Nicole Brown

“What Would You Do” host John Quiñones was also a part of the surprise speakers congratulating the Dreamers. “Be proud. Never, ever stop stepping forward and shooting for the stars.”

Actor Courtney B. Vance compared today’s generation with those long gone. “I see this generation like those during the Vietnam era,” he said. “They are calling out the older generation to live the ideals of this country.”

Talk Show host Tamron Hall echoed Vance’s sentiments. “You challenge us to do better.”

Tony Award-winning actress and singer Cynthia Erivo told the Dreamers, “This is only the beginning of your wildest dreams coming to.”

ANDREA CAROL BULLOCK, RN, BSN, shared valuable information about careers in the medical industry during the “Medical Deep Dive” session. (Photos provided by Disney Dreamers Academy)

The five Chicago-area Dreamers, who participated in the virtual commencement after completing their assignments under the program, included Jeremiah Lewis and Jaden Maloney; Mary Catherine Hanafee LaPlante, from Mount Prospect; and Kennedy Crye from Joliet. Another Dreamer Ariyana Irving is from Gary, Indiana.

During a previous Medical Deep Dive session, Jeremiah wondered about a quick-turnaround COVID-19 vaccine, which we are seeing now is the case. “I would advise that you continue to follow the guidance of Dr. Anthony Fauci. It takes vigorous testing, and companies must understand the efficacy and safety of the drug,” said Andrea Carol Bullock, RN, BSN, Director of US Medical Communications at EMD Serono. EMD Serono is a biopharma business that develops and offers therapies for specialty-care conditions, like multiple sclerosis, infertility and cancer.

Co-host Tracey Powell

I recently reached out to all the students to share their experiences. However, after a while, Mary Catherine, who is a senior at Prospect High School, was the only one to respond – first about her being able to join together with the other 99 Dreamers, after they had met briefly at Walt Disney World in early March. The event was cut short because of the pandemic. “One really exciting experience I had was reconnecting with all my fellow DDA class members over Zoom and in our group chat. We lost touch over the summer, so it has been really exciting to catch up with them and rekindle the strong connections we had built at Disney.”

Mary Catherine appreciated the opportunity to participate in the deep dives. “I took full advantage of the fact that every deep dive was available to us, and I took the Law, Natural Sciences, and Medical Deep Dives. I gained insight into the careers associated with each of these deep dives and listening to the experts helped me to narrow down what I want my future career to look like.” She also had praise for another motivational speaker who has participated in DDA for years—Lisa Nichols, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Motivating the Masses, Inc. “We met at DDA, and she is just as inspiring over Zoom as she is in person. Her message of hard work and grit really resonates with me.”

To add to the excitement, Disney Dreamers were awarded career shadowing externships. A first for Disney Dreamers, each student will be paired with a professional from his or her field of interest for a spring 2021 mentoring experience. Mentors will bring knowledge and expertise from Walt Disney Imagineering, the Walt Disney Studios, ABC, Pixar, Essence Magazine, National Geographic and other organizations.

“We took great pride in presenting the Disney Dreamers Academy Virtual Program Series,” said Powell. “The virtual platform gave us a chance to amplify the Disney Dreamers Academy theme, ‘Be100,’ which encourages teens to be positive, to be ‘all in’ and to make a difference. We could not be more impressed with this year’s class and the curiosity, positive outlook and perseverance it’s shown the last 12 weeks. This was a unique opportunity for us to touch the lives of these 100 students, and we know they are destined for great things.”

Disney Dreamers Academy traditionally brings together 100 students from across the United States for an all-expenses-paid trip to Walt Disney World where they participate in an immersive, transformational four-day learning experience. The program is part of Walt Disney World Resort’s commitment to helping the next generation of young people by inspiring them at a critical time in their development. The virtual series was launched after the March 12-15, 2020, event at Walt Disney World Resort ended early due to the pandemic.

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