Impacting individuals, families, schools, neighborhoods and cities through practical, social and spiritual service
In the middle of downtown Peoria lies a unique organization with a heart for the homeless and disadvantaged youth. Located at 714 Hamilton Boulevard, the Dream Center is impacting lives throughout the area.
Transitional Housing and Work Programs
Perhaps the part of the Dream Center most readily recognized by the community is its homeless shelter. Every night, the organization houses not only individuals, but families with children—and the Dream Center is the only facility in the area that shelters this population.
When someone uses the overnight shelter, the ultimate goal is to convert them to transitional housing. Do they drink, do drugs or have other negative habits that have contributed to their homelessness? They must be willing to do whatever it takes to change. When they are ready, they fill out an application, are interviewed and write a letter explaining why they want to be moved to transitional housing. Upon acceptance, they can stay up to two years.
Kristy Schofield, Director of Housing and Homeless Services, has seen many examples of people who have turned their lives around. “One of the hardest areas for someone to get their life back is when they have been in prison,” she says. “So often during incarceration, their identifying documents are lost.” The Center recently accepted a young woman who had grown up with a mother who sold drugs. With that influence in her life, she succumbed to dealing and ended up in prison for five years. While in prison, she decided she needed to change, and took every certification class available to her.
“Many times, upon release, a person is simply bussed to a location and dropped,” Schofield says. “The hardest part of the whole experience is that they need proof of residency to get a state ID and other documentation in order to get a job.” Fortunately, she ended up at the Dream Center, where she was accepted into transitional housing and is now part of a work program.
“We are working to build partnerships with businesses, which can be a win-win for them and us,” Schofield notes. “We supply the people, and they teach and train. But we don’t stop there. We work together to build and empower that employee. We jointly counsel and ensure that there is a good work ethic.” The Pizza Ranch is among the Dream Center’s current employers, but more are needed. The goal is employment starting in the $10- to $12-an-hour range so resident workers can become independent. More than 94 percent of those who have participated in the Dream Center’s transitional housing move into permanent housing. “That is quite a success story,” Schofield adds.
Like many nonprofits, the lack of a state budget is critically affecting this program, as a third of the shelter budget goes to pay the case managers. However, services are not being cut at this time. Schofield remains confident that continuing fundraisers, soliciting donations and having a “do whatever it takes” attitude will keep them moving forward, and eventually, the state will pay its bills.
Another area of community need is served by the Dream Center’s Project 309, a powerful afterschool program. For many children, there is a lot of uncertainty about “what’s next” when school lets out. The reality is that many kids feel unsafe in their neighborhood, so instead of going home, they are bussed to the Dream Center. Upon arrival, they receive a snack and hear a positive message to focus them for the remainder of their day.
“We are challenging ourselves by putting measurements in place to evaluate our program and the children participating in it,” notes Robbie Criss, Youth Services Coordinator. “We know that math and reading are critical areas.” To that end, the Center now has a retired teacher—a committed volunteer whose areas of expertise are in English, phonics and learning comprehension—working with the six-to-10-year-old group. This has made a major difference, as the program is becoming more structured and the children are responding. The Center is also getting a retired math teacher—another win-win for the organization and the kids.
“It is very rewarding to see the difference we are making in these kids’ lives,” Criss says. “I could say a lot about the various issues we have addressed… to then see that child turn around and become a straight-A student, or rise to the top 90 percent in math, become a youth leader at the Dream Center, or start saying ‘thank you’ and being grateful.”
Unfortunately, Project 309 has had to tighten its budget. While 60 children were originally in the program, today, they can take only 30. Volunteers are needed for the kitchen—as the Center not only serves a snack, but feeds all children an evening meal before they leave—and the organization could use an administrative assistant to oversee the calendar, parental contact and the paperwork side of things.
Teaching Business Skills
The Dream Center realizes that not all kids have the same skills and interests, so youth are “targeted” as to what they like. One example is its involvement with Salesforce for 11-to-18-year-olds. Through this software, they learn skills that allow them to be job-ready by the time they graduate. Recently, the Center took two of its top Salesforce participants to Chicago for the “Salesforce World Tour,” where they met business owners; saw new ideas, products and services; and honed their networking skills. Without the Center’s involvement, they could not have participated in such a program.
In addition, the Dream Center is developing more areas like the YES! Coffee program to teach the skills needed to work in or run a business, and it is finalizing the renovation of an area in the building which will house a tea room.
Matt Larson, executive director since July 2014, has made great progress getting these programs in place, and is currently pursuing business alliances to benefit Project 309 and the organization as a whole. “I am working to give the Dream Center the ability to stand on its own,” he says. “There is too much uncertainty in having it any other way. We have many great people, businesses and organizations that support our mission. We just need to continue to get the word out to the community. As they learn what we are doing, they see the benefits pouring into the kids and families we serve.” iBi
To learn more about Dream Center Peoria, visit dreamcenterpeoria.org.