One evening late in August, a stream of people filtered in and out of the DC Dream Center at 2828 Q St. NE. Kids stopped to do arts and crafts, play some basketball in the gym or to take biking classes with volunteers from Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA). Meanwhile, adults conversed over barbecue and visited tables with information from local organizations and DC agencies.
The DC Dream Center (DCDC) was celebrating five years since the ribbon was cut on the center’s new building that serves the community of Southeast DC, with a particular focus on Ward 7 and 8.
The center offers free programs to the community including employment services, after school sessions and after-school camps, one-to-one mentoring, tutoring, exercise classes, Bible studies, “Mom’s Night Out”, weekly prayer breakfasts and bi-monthly luncheons.
“Not only was it a celebration of five years of God’s faithfulness, it really was an opportunity to bring together community that, especially due to COVID, really hasn’t had an opportunity to celebrate much in a communal fashion,” said DCDC Executive Director (ED) Ernest Clover.
A Long History in the Community
There are Dream Centers all over the world, from Perth, Australia to Atlanta, GA. Each one provides a specialized response to needs in the community.
DCDC’s history actually goes back 26 years to the founding of the Southeast White House (SWWH, 2909 Pennsylvania Ave SE) by Sammie Morrison and Scott Dimock. They wanted to provided community programs and services as part of Christian public witness. The SWWH established the mentoring, after school and family support programs as well as many of the outreach programs that DCDC continues today.
Founded in the same year, SWWH built a relationship with the National Community Church (NCC) Pastor Mark Batterson. In 2010, NCC began considering a center for outreach in the city. Morrison and Dominick, then in their early 70s, had hoped to renovate a building they owned about a block from SWWH for the same purpose but were ready to step back, so they handed the ministry and the building over to NCC to renovate for urban outreach.
Clover arrived at the Southeast White House in 2012, starting out as a mentor to a 12-year-old student. That’s when the opportunity opened up to build out the new Dream Center. Clover took the baton from Morrison and Dominick. His team immediately undertook fundraising, listening to community members about their needs. In the end, the Dream Center was built to order for many of the programs that SWWH had been offering for decades, a space open to all District churches for outreach and programming.
A Re-Examination of Purpose
Now DCDC meets community needs as they are identified. During the pandemic, the Center repurposed from March 2020 to June 2021 to give out over one million pounds of food, over 64,000 free meals, and over 100,000 free hygiene and non-perishable items.
Although they never closed, the pandemic forced a pivot in planning at the Dream Center, Cover said. “COVID, just like for a lot of other people, really shook us to our foundations,” Clover said. “We had to examine, “why are we doing any of the stuff we’re doing?”
DCDC identified key guiding principles. Education is the first priority, Clover said. A second centers on helping students understand the power of language. A third is “the marketplace of ideas,” wherein DCDC makes space for people of diverse backgrounds to come together and talk. The final but still prominent pillar is economics; DCDC holds job fairs and helps entrepreneurs establish businesses.
The center uses each of its programs to facilitate all five principles. For instance, four years ago, DCDC entered a collaboration with Howard University, to provide medication assisted treatment and telehealth to persons with opioid use disorder. Howard was looking for the right person to work in the program.
They found the ideal candidate in the DCDC community, hiring a grandmother with a child in DCDC’s after school program. A former addict now 11 years clean, she is now the peer specialist in Howard’s program at DCDC.
Clover said this is just one example of how adults’ lives can be transformed by the Center.
“She told me, “I never thought I’d have a job with sick days, holiday pay”,” he recalled her saying. She particularly likes having an office with photos of her family up on the wall, he said.
Other opportunities are offered in part through the Community Service Agency Building Futures Program, which helps neighbors get certificates in trades and get jobs in carpentry, plumbing or electrical. Entrepreneurs have started landscaping businesses through SWWH.
People at the Core
DCDC itself has an entrepreneurial spirit, Clover said, working to connect the ecosystem in Wards 7 and 8.
Volunteers are the backbone of DCDC. Most volunteers live in the community and walk to the Dream Center and help to build the programs. For instance, it would be impossible to offer computer skills sessions to seniors without people with know-how who are willing to teach others how to download programs, use email and navigate the internet—critical skills especially for the many grandparents raising school-aged children in a time of hybrid learning.
He’d like to have a farmer’s market on the property which would work with the goals of education, entrepreneurship and ideas.
“All the pieces exist,” Clover said, “it’s just us aggregating them together.”
DCDC works to affect all those in the community, but there is a special focus on children. The primary vehicle to affect kids, Clover said, is mentor relationships.
At the outset of the relationship, Clover said, adults need to have real conversations to find out about the lives children are leading and what they really need as building blocks to their success. For some children, a dream might be spending cash on the food they want, or having a bed —rather than just a mattress— to sleep on. “I always want to bring dreaming to a real-world reality of the here and now,” Clover said, “but never lose sight of speaking prophetically over children.”
The Dream Center mentor program is a three-way relationship, Clover said, between mentor and mentee as well as the guardian. The program begins with a year of commitment, at about 10 hours a month.
Sometimes, Clover said, it is seemingly simple stuff that makes a big difference for a child’s future. “Dreams do take structure. No one’s really going to have a dream that’s executable without being taught how to build some structure in their lives.”
Mentors emphasize what Clover calls “guardrails for life,” including the importance of money management, good grades and doing homework. As they get older, mentors will talk to them about identification and driver’s license and help with obtaining these.
The biggest difference between the Dream Center and Big Brothers is the faith component, Clover said; mentors are Christians and will invite mentees to church or to Bible study, although nobody is required to go.
Dream with DC
The Center holds fellowship luncheons on the first and third Wednesday of every month and everyone is welcome to attend; the next one is Nov. 16. These meals, beginning at 12:30 p.m., facilitate an environment where people from a variety of backgrounds can come together for fellowship, establishing friendships and building relationships.
In the next few weeks, DCDC will begin seasonal outreach. In November, they will prepare Thanksgiving meals to families. Next month, they will open Santa’s Toy Shop, a collection of donated toys where parents are invited to shop.
“It’s a way to preserve the mystery and amazement of Christmas, even when other things are difficult,” Clover said. “But it’s also a way we are creating culture, creating and holding space where people can relate to one another as a fam around something that is positive.”
Clover said he was looking forward to the next 25 years in the community. “We put the unity in community at the Dream Center,” he said. “This is a place where hope becomes habit, where kids can be kids and you’re never too old to dream your wildest dream.”
You can get involved by volunteering your time, skills or support. Visit https://dcdreamcenter.com/volunteering/