The Quintessential Gentleman Magazine caught up with the founder and Executive Director of Dibia DREAM, Brandon Okpalobi. Okpalobi shares his commitment to providing access to a blend of STEM and Sports to minority students. The hope of this program is to build confidence to excel academically and socially.
When and why did you start Dibia DREAM?
I started DREAM on October 6th, 2014. This is after noticing that we were not impacting enough youth who ‘looked like me’ with my for-profit business, DIBIA Athletic Development. I was determined to really change the narrative and began taking a deeper look into the education disparity that exists between groups. I quickly noticed that there were not many quality OST (Out of School Time) programs available for youth in communities predominantly populated by minority groups. Also, the increase in youth gun violence and other violent behaviors made me really think about how to create the change that was desperately needed. Being well traveled, I noticed that this problem wasn’t just an American problem; rather it is a global issue. This discovery has led me to establish programming in Bermuda as well as begin talks to expand to Columbia, South Africa, and Nigeria.
On a more personal note, in the second grade, I was just like the kids that I currently serve. I see myself in them today. As a child, my high energy was focused in the wrong areas and that caused me to get in trouble often. I would earn all A’s in my classwork but also earn F’s in conduct. Eventually, I was kicked out of second grade and sent to a creative arts school where they channeled my negative energy into art. By pushing me toward artistic expression, my thought process changed. I became an entrepreneur in the 3rd grade. I started a clothing business where I sketched and used acrylic paint on shirts and sold them. A couple of years later, when I was in the 5th grade, I had a mentor say to me, “Brandon, you are extremely intelligent and can be anything you want when you grow up, but this behavior and acting out must stop today.” From that day on in Ms. Foleys class, I changed my behavior. With DREAM, I am able to bring educational opportunities to youth in underserved communities. I can also serve as a mentor to kids like Mrs. Foley was to me in order to help them win at life.
What was your organization’s biggest triumph of the past year?
As a young organization, we have to work double time to be recognized as a viable organization worthy of support from funders, partners, and the community.
At DREAM, we pride ourselves on providing optimal quality programs to youth and their families. So, in partnership with our DREAM Academy site Eneida M. Hartner Elementary School, it was an honor to be named the ‘2017 Best After School Program’ by the Miami-Dade Coalition for Community Education.
What new initiatives have been started since you started?
This year alone DREAM has launched the following three new initiatives to impact youth: Carrying DREAMS Home Initiative, STEM Saturdays, and NIKE Running Club.
Carrying DREAMs Home Initiative: To combat childhood hunger, DREAM partnered with Hyatt Regency New Orleans to provide “DREAMPaks” to youth participating in Dream Academy. DREAMPaks included non-perishable foods and healthy snacks. They were taken home at the end of each week and then were re-filled the following week to make sure youth and their families had nourishment through the weekend.
STEM Saturdays: STEM Saturdays are monthly, city-wide, family-oriented, and community-based academic events where students and parents can attend and learn together. By transforming community centers into “Incubators of Excellence”, the goal is to engage and expose youth and their families to STEM-based activities.
Nike Running Club: Nike Running Club is one of the cornerstones of our health & wellness initiative named DREAM Active. This competitive, nationally recognized program allows our scholars and Dream Academy youth participants to develop athletically with a strong focus on individual training, team sports, and sportsmanship.
As head of this organization, what goals do you have for it next year?
As the head of DREAM, my focus is to ensure the sustainability of the growing non-profit organization so that we can continue to do the work that is needed to achieve our mission. This entails me setting goals to increase revenue, funding, partnerships, and sponsorships. While these things remain a top priority, another critical goal to our success next year is to bring on 3-4 key staff members to manage our growth. We are in current talks to expand from 3 Dream Academy after-school sites to 6 sites as early as this fall. This includes expansion to Bermuda which poses a different focus as an international expansion. Lastly, with more STEM Saturday dates confirmed each month, we will essentially double the number of students in all programs to increase our impact.
Can you share a short story about an incident or event that illustrates the impact you believe your organization is having on your local community or the region?
In the 21st century, one of America’s greatest challenges is motivating, educating, and training a technical workforce to ensure that we can compete and thrive globally. DREAM offers many programs to combat this issue and change the narrative in our community. STEM Saturdays are one initiative that is making a significant difference by providing a safe place for at-risk youth and their families to engage in impactful STEAM-based activities on the weekends.
We launched STEM Saturdays last year to increase community volunteerism and to help youth learn about opportunities in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. Noticing the lack of women of color in STEM fields, DREAM partnered with Honey Shine, a mentoring and empowerment organization for girls that focuses on young women of color. Together, we’ve hosted over 100 girls at STEM Saturdays where they dissected actual hearts and also constructed mechanical hearts. The girls received custom lab coats, gloves and goggles to complete their projects which were taken home at the end of the day.
Since then, my staff and I have received numerous text messages and phone calls from parents saying that “this was the best workshop their child attended.” I specifically recall a young girl saying to me “Mr. Brandon, I feel like a doctor!” The learning continues because parents are saying, “We are having STEM conversations at home and our daughter is explaining her project.”
These are the types of hands-on experiments and project development interactions only made possible with our unique learning lesson. In this way, we hope to continue to change the narrative.
To learn more about Dibia Dream, click here.
Written by: Yvette N. Harris