Michelle Ebanks (Essence Magazine), Steve Harvey, Mikki Taylor (Essence Magazine) and Mickey Mouse surrounded by a group of students from this year’s Disney’s Dreamers Academy with Steve Harvey and Essence Magazine. (Photo by Todd Anderson)

*“Dreams are what fuel everything in a person’s life. It makes you go to school, it makes you want more, it makes you obey the law, it makes you think of how to be a kind person, it makes you think before you act so you can anticipate your future.”  — Steve Harvey

*Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, in collaboration with nationally syndicated radio personality Steve Harvey and Essence magazine, the leading communications company dedicated to African American women, presented Disney’s Dreamers Academy graduating class of 2011 featuring teens from 22 states and the District of Columbia at the fourth Disney’s Dreamers Academy graduating exercise that concluded the four-day program March 3-6, 2011.

Disney’s Dreamers Academy is dedicated to the complete advancement of youth.  The goal is for each participant to leave knowing that no Dream is too far-fetched.  These Dreamers and their parent or guardian were given unprecedented access to the enchantment behind Walt Disney World Resort.

Walt Disney World Resort and Steve Harvey developed Disney’s Dreamers Academy in an effort to unveil a world of possibilities, inspire teens to dream big and help them to get started on their career paths.  Launched in 2007, the program was designed to motivate high school students in grades 9-12 to achieve their dreams personally and professionally.

For the lucky winners, the process began last year when Harvey received thousands of nominations for hopeful Dreamers from parents, teachers, school administrators, church groups and students.  The criteria used to select the Dreamers included exhibiting curiosity, compassion and leadership skills.  Another prerequisite was that they share a commonality — the power to “believe” and “dream.”

During the nominating phase, Harvey was joined by a distinguished panel of judges including: Yolanda Adams (gospel music legend); Angela Burt-Murray (former editor-in-chief, Essence Magazine); Dr. Steve Perry (education advocate and CNN commentator); Dalonte Hall (DDA Dreamer, Class of 2010); Terrence J (MTV personality); Carole Munroe (director of media relations, Disney Parks & Resorts); Tracey Powell (director of pricing, Disney Parks & Resorts); Stella Ringer (marketing manager, The Coca-Cola Company); Lorraine Robertson (blogger); and Stephen A. Smith (broadcaster/sports analyst).

Once the selection process was over, Dreamers and their parent and/or guardian travelled to Walt Disney World Resort to participate in immersive workshops focusing on a variety of subjects including Walt Disney Imagineering techniques, entertainment, entrepreneurship, and culinary arts; and featuring Disney experts, world renowned entrepreneurs and celebrities who shared their blueprints for success, upholding the program’s mission to motivate, empower and inspire young adults.

During the dynamic daytime activities Dreamers participated in a career-inspiration program that included interactive workshops, motivational seminars, networking events, hands-on creative experiences and fun at Walt Disney World Parks featuring generous use of Disney’s popular “Easy Pass” allowing access on rides without having to wait on long lines.

And after a day filled with career-inspiration programs that included interactive workshops, motivational seminars, networking events, hands-on creative experiences and fun, Dreamers really rocked the funktastic at their very own disco that was constructed on a back lot at Epcot Center exclusively for their enjoyment replete with disco ball and live DJ.

Dreamers were thrilled over the level of genuine concern and recognition they received from everyone involved in the event and gave high marks to the professionals and celebrities in attendance.  The motivational event culminated at a graduation exercise filled with joyful jubilation and wonderment.

Dreamers received lasting parting words from Harvey and several celebrities such as popular entertainment mogul Raven Symone who, in responding to a student who stated his big dream was to become an “iconic celebrity,” told him to focus more on being credible.  “Don’t focus too much on the celebrity part.  Celebrity lights always dim. ‘Iconic’ is timeless.”

And in her thoughtful words, Essence Magazine’s editor-at-large, Mikki Taylor, addressed the importance of developing the right relationships in life and offered sentiments on being optimistic.  “Don’t let what you don’t have get in the way of what you do have and what you want to possess,” Taylor offered.  “You have everything you need.  Keep positive people in your life.  Your relationships are your wealth.”

The life changing commencement program also included profound remarks from award-winning Gospel music legend Yolanda Adams; Essence Communications president Michelle Ebanks; Coca-Cola North America senior brand activation manager Stella Ringer; Jostens senior manager of market development Gloria Garcia; and Disney’s Dreamers Academy executive champion Tracey D. Powell,

“Each year our goal is to equip Dreamers with the know-how to get started on their journeys in life,” said Powell.  “Disney’s Dreamers Academy gives these students inspiration to explore the countless possibilities they may never have imagined. Lives are changed at this program.”

The commencement exercise ended with Harvey presenting all the graduates with graduation rings and a spectacular performance from The Lion King production.  The 2011 graduating class of students from across the country who participated in Disney’s Dreamers Academy with Steve Harvey and Essence magazine included:

Alexis Coates, Auburn, AL; Deundray Cottrell, Birmingham, AL; Shanice Alexander, Casa Grande, AZ; Princeton Parker, Los Angeles, CA; Maresja Bray, Los Angeles, CA; Brittany Dunn, Rancho Cordova, CA; Alanah Grisham, San Diego, CA; Rufus Humphrey, Inglewood, CA; Lester Coffield, Washington, DC; John Tucker, Washington, DC; Denzel Wilson, Washington, DC; Lansana Donzo, Claymont, DE; Angel Gardner, Bear, DE; Jakiha Johnson, Wilmington, DE; Lavelle Pauls, Dover, DE; Cheylan Abernathy, Windermere, FL; Khari Anthony, Davie, FL; Michael Balcom, Naples, FL; Andrew Bush, Pinellas Park, FL; and

Shakeana Clark, Apopka, FL; Za’quari Johnson, Hollywood, FL; Christeanna Lalla, Orange Park, FL; Wayne Lyons, Fort Lauderdale, FL; Dalvin McHome, Riviera Beach, FL; De’Mia Middleton, Brandon, FL; Chante Rodgers, Orlando, FL; Chardeni Shelton, Brandon, FL; Alexis Sheppard, Orlando, FL; Diamond Sims, Miami, FL; Mark West, Tampa, FL; Taiya Deria, Lithonia, GA; Tiana Gainey, Soperton, GA; Antonia Green, Darien, GA; Briana Gude, Fayetteville, GA; Nautica Mitchell, Alpharetta, GA; Brandon Paul, Union City, GA; and

Jone Sagoes, McDonough, GA; Ashlynn Stodghill, Fairburn, GA; Simone Wood, East Point, GA; Aun’Jelika Buchanan, Chicago, IL; Alexandria Butler, Romeoville, IL; Lonnel Fowlkes, Plainfield, IL; Kendall Grady, Chicago, IL; Robyn Gregg, Chicago, IL; Kenyatta Holmes, Chicago, IL; Haroon Lewis, Chicago, IL; Laryssa Rollins, Matteson, IL; Lyric Simms, Champaign, IL; Brianna Sullivan, Riverdale, IL; Allisa Bryant, Merillville, IN; Avery Davis, Gary, IN; Taeler Jackson, Topeka, KS; Chad Davis, New Orleans, LA; Raina Houston, New Orleans, LA; Ashlyn Pinkins, Gretna, LA; Laward Smith, New Orleans, LA; Chassity Walker, Avondale, LA; Xy’Quarrius Webster, Lafayette, LA; and

Jared Adams, Owings, MD; Brianna Bazemore, Temple Hills, MD; Ta’Shawn Black, Capitol Heights , MD; Naadira Brooks, Suitland, MD; TeAna Brown, Salisbury, MD; Clairmont Huggins, Bowie, MD; Chelsea Scott, Ft. Washington, MD; Tevontae Abraham, Saginaw, MI; Tierney Byrd, Detroit, MI; Demetrius Jackson, Detroit, MI; Layla White, Detroit, MI; Tonio Magee, Silvercreek, MS; Latosha Blizzard, Wilson, NC; Jasmine Kirby, Charlotte, NC; Destinee Wilson, Fayetteville, NC; Amaka Amaechi, Plainfield, NJ; Dashana Collins, Irvington, NJ; Brenaea Flucas, Willingboro, NJ; A’Dorian Murray-Thomas, Newark, NJ; Kiana Smiling, North Plainfield, NJ; Isaiah Wesley, Somerset, NJ; and

Patricia Albright, Camillus, NY; Tonea Barnett, Philadelphia, PA; Nyilah Jamison-Myers, Orangeburg, SC; Virginia Wright, Columbia, SC; Tachele Anderson, Memphis, TN; Dehattcia Bradd, Memphis, TN; Christopher Yancy, Memphis, TN; Joseph Jacques, Fort Worth, TX; Alysia Johnson, Rowlett, TX; Jordan Murrell, Benbrook, TX; Ki’ara Torrence, Euless, TX; Jose Villagomez, McAllen, TX; Emily Burns, South Ogden, UT; Christopher Allen, Virginia Beach, VA; Denise Dailey, Suffolk, VA; Ashley Johnson, Stafford, VA; Tiara Miles, Arlington, VA; David Miller, Bealeton, VA; Briaun Rooks, Newport News, VA; Jacob Rugen, Ashburn, VA; and Tiffani Spruill, Newport News, VA.

In addition, thirteen students from New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., who missed the 2010 program due to inclement weather, were invited back to participate in this year’s commencement ceremony and to receive their graduating ring along with the 2011 graduating class.

For the first time in the four year history of Disney’s Dreamers Academy, five students were awarded internships, four with this year’s Essence Music Festival in New Orleans – funded by Essence Communications, the Walt Disney World Resort and Coca-Cola – and an internship with Footman-Brewer Enterprises, LLC.

Outstanding achievement awards were also handed out to Disney Dreamers in five categories: Creativity “The Arts and Entertainment Award” (Jordan Murrell); Courage “The Community and Public Services Award” (Angel Graham); Curiosity “The Health and Sciences Award” (Ashlynn Stodghill); Confidence “The Entrepreneurship Award” (Briaun Rooks); Dreamer Role Model “The Dreamer with the most incredible journey and potential” (Angel Gardner); and

Dreamer Mentor Role Model “The mentor with the most inspiring story” (Jonathan Sprinkles).

“Each year we strive to find young people who may have a will or passion, but may not have the courage to explore their dreams,” stated Harvey.  “So we hope to unlock the power that will allow them to pursue their hearts’ desires.  Walt Disney World, Essence Magazine and I are excited to be a part of these young Dreamers’ experience that will encourage them to bring their dreams to life.”

Audrey J. Bernard is an established chronicler of Black society and Urban happenings based in the New York City area.