National Writing Project

Baltimore’s Youth Dreamers Have a Home: The Dream House

By: Art Peterson
Date: May 12, 2010

Summary: A cadre of Baltimore middle school students dreamed that they could help their urban neighborhood with a house where young kids could be mentored and participate in fun activities—and they made that dream a reality.


The Dream House becomes a reality.

Kristina Berdan's Stadium School middle school students were unfortunately all too familiar with the crime, drugs, and even homicide on the streets of their Baltimore neighborhood. They told Berdan that temptations abounded for young people to engage in negative behavior—in part because there was nothing for kids to do after school.

But the kids had an antidote in mind that startled Berdan. If they could acquire a house where teenagers could be employed to teach and mentor younger children and provide activities that the neighborhood youth wanted, the young people would be off the street and have things to do.

Their vision is now a reality.

On May 7, Youth Dreamers , a group of Baltimore middle school, high school, and college kids celebrated the grand opening of their youth center on their very own property at 1430 Carswell Street in their hometown. The three-story, ten-room structure should be well suited to the group's big plans.

The youth and their adult supporters intend to have the facility open every day after school and during the summer as well. At the center, which houses—among other things—two computer labs, selected middle and high school students will work with younger students for regular one-on-one tutoring. Classes will be offered in pottery, mosaics, creative writing, typing, and more by youth and adult volunteers.

"I can't believe it's finally happening!" proclaims Dominique Davis, a high school Youth Dreamer and teacher in the summer program.

The Sweat Equity Behind the Dream

As the name of their organization suggests, the concept of their now materialized youth center did, in fact, begin as a dream in the minds of these young people and their teacher.

A visitor to our class might have mistaken the students for aspiring real estate agents.

It was 2001 when Berdan, a teacher-consultant with the Maryland Writing Project, proposed to a group of nine students at the Stadium School that they take on a community project.

Berdan's thinking had been influenced by her work with the Centre for Social Action (CSA) , a social service organization based at De Montfort University in Leicester, England, and a partner of the National Writing Project. A key premise of CSA's work is that community members, including youth, are best equipped to define and solve the problems that affect them.

Says Berdan, "I was used to asking the people affected to identify community problems. CSA pushed me to ask the next question: Why do these circumstances occur?"

Berdan's students knew why their community's problems occurred and moved straight into taking action by starting a letter-writing campaign. In their search for support the group contacted everyone from the Department of Public Housing to Oprah Winfrey to the Baltimore Orioles.

They also wrote to Maryland's Senator Barbara Mikulski, who was impressed enough by what she called the group's "sweat equity"—meaning that these young people had the persistence to see the project through to completion—that she successfully obtained for them a $70,000 grant from the federal government that would send them on the way toward buying a neighborhood building for their center.

The original group of nine students had signed a pledge to stay involved with what was going to be a long-term project, even in the years after they left Stadium School. And that's been a good thing, as the challenges have been great.

The original location the students had an eye on fell through, sending the group back to the drawing board. Said Berdan, "A visitor to our class might have mistaken the students for aspiring real estate agents. 'What's the square footage?' they wanted to know. They'd find a potential site and then get on MapQuest to check out exactly where the property was located. They wanted a safe location that was near to schools, the right size, and affordable."

Renewed Commitment

With renewed commitment, the original group, along with others who came aboard—enlarging the size of the group to about 50—began to write successful grant proposals—lots of them. And they also took on responsibility for a myriad of other activities.

As seventh-grader Regene White explains, "With guidance and support from adults, we did pretty much everything. In addition to writing grants, we ran fund-raisers, designed and ran [tutoring and other] programs at Stadium School, planned and participated in our an annual gala/auction, and worked with our pro bono architect and general contractor to design the house and move through the phases of construction."

Now that they're ensconced in their new center, the Youth Dreamers are finding ways not only to be there for the young people of their community, but to reach out to the surrounding neighborhood that has supported them, including volunteering at the nearby free health clinic that currently donates space for the Youth Dreamers Health Club for girls.

Says eighth-grader Terrence Sneed, "We do a lot with the community, such as trash pick-ups, block parties, art classes, homework club, and much more."

In 2008 the Youth Dreamers worked with Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse and Stevenson University to hold two service days that brought out over 300 volunteers to transform the two acres of shared space between the future youth center and the free health clinic. Volunteers tore down fences, landscaped, created mosaic stepping stones, hung banners designed by students in the summer art program, and built a picket fence.

All of this has been possible as a result of the group's "sweat equity" endorsed by Mikulski early in the decade. As the opening lyrics of a rap song developed by the group back in 2002 proclaimed,

We're the Youth Dreamers
and we're here to say
We're gonna bring success and education your way.

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