Dream Team

dreamteam_article
Tom and Kathy Kelly visit two of their Greensboro Dreamers, Jacayla Edwards and Kadijah Woods, on the Georgia Southern University campus.

Two Georgia Southern University freshmen have achieved their goal of attending college through the Greensboro Dreamers

This fall, Jacayla Edwards and Kadijah Woods headed to college with thousands of other students across the country. While most of their peers began prepping for college during high school, these Georgia Southern University freshmen are a little different than most. Since the first grade, Edwards and Woods have been working to achieve their lifelong dream.

Thanks to a couple who decided to pursue a different type of retirement, these young women’s dream has become a reality along with many of their high school classmates, some of whom will be the first in their families to ever attend college.

Tom and Kathy Kelly, the founders of the Greensboro Dreamers — an educational program they launched in August 2000 — changed the lives and futures of 44 first graders a dozen years ago in Greene County. In exchange for a 12-year commitment, the Kellys agreed to provide tuition assistance for each student to attend college or vocational school after graduating from high school.

THEY HAD A DREAM

The story of the Greensboro Dreamers began when Tom and Kathy Kelly opted for early retirement. Tom, at 56, was the president of the cardiovascular devices division for health care corporation Baxter International, and Kathy had served as the first female mayor of Clearwater, Fla. The couple moved to the north Georgia town of Greensboro — outside Athens — to be closer to their children and grandchildren living in Atlanta. While most retirees would be slowing down and enjoying long-awaited vacations, the Kellys instead decided to share their success with those in need, specifically focusing on education.

The concept of giving back to those less fortunate was instilled in Tom from a very young age. “My mother came from Ireland. If she had a nickel, she would give it to someone else. She was always giving back. The same is true about Kathy,” he said about his wife. “She was one of seven children and her father always emphasized getting a college education,” Tom added.

The Kellys were inspired by philanthropist Eugene Lang’s “I Have a Dream” Foundation, which he launched in 1981 in New York City. The program provides college tuition assistance to underprivileged children across the United States. “After researching several education-based programs, we decided that ‘I Have a Dream’ was the best concept for us,” said Tom, about their decision to affiliate with the program. The Greensboro Dreamers became the first rural chapter of the national program.

“We wanted to introduce this program to kids with financial needs in Greene County,” said Tom, describing the reason why they selected Greensboro Elementary School. The Kellys met with Principal Joan Antone to see if she was interested in her students participating in the Greensboro Dreamers, which they promised would include tutors and funding. Antone jumped at the chance to offer this opportunity to her students, many of whom would never be able to attend college.

The Kellys also realized that they needed the influence of another driven educator, a person to serve as the program director – someone who would help them push the students to succeed on a daily basis. Antone had just the person in mind – Greensboro native and first-grade teacher Beth Thomas.

According to Thomas, she was never interested in pursuing any profession other than teaching. “I worked as a first-grade teacher for four years with Mrs. Antone, and I begged her to let me move up to second grade with my class because I wanted to follow my students. One day, Mrs. Antone called me into her office and Tom and Kathy were sitting there talking about the Dreamers program and I thought ‘this is my dream come true.’ ” Thomas finally had the chance to follow her students through high school and beyond.

“Beth is the backbone of this project, and it has been a dream come true for us because she is absolutely the best,” said Tom. “Beth is the most organized person we have ever met — she is like their surrogate mom and has been a blessing to us and all of the kids from day one,” he added, about the person the Dreamers lovingly call “Miss Beth.”

Since first grade, the Dreamers were required to attend Saturday school two times a month, spend four days a week in an after school tutoring program (including Spring Break), and attend summer school for the month of June. Other requirements included performing eight hours of community service each semester; some of the activities included playing bingo with nursing home residents, performing holiday choral concerts and tutoring fifth graders from Greensboro Elementary School. All total, each student participated for more than 1,700 hours in the program and Thomas and the Kellys have been working side- by-side with the students every step of the way.

Nicknamed “Mr. and Mrs. K” by the Dreamers, the couple quickly stepped into the role of surrogate grandparents. “We spent a lot of time with the kids, motivating them to keep good grades and listening to issues in their home life,” said Tom.

Kathy enlisted the help of friends all over the country to serve as sponsors and visited local businesses to donate after-school meals for their program. The program grew to include six part- time teachers and 20 volunteers each week working after school with the Dreamers. The students were also paired with a mentor that became involved in all aspects of their everyday lives from baking Christmas cookies to celebrating birthdays and drilling the Dreamers about their grades.

Through the years, Tom has worked tirelessly as a fundraiser to secure grants and other financial assistance for the Dreamers as well as support more than 600 non-Dreamer students in Greene County.

While academic learning has been a large part of the Dreamers program, the students developed character traits and life skills outside the classroom, participating in etiquette classes and living by “Quotes of the Week.” “The quotes could be ‘Family Comes First,’ or ‘Always leave a tip for a hotel room,’ ” said Thomas. The objective behind the activity is for the Dreamers to think about every choice they make in their lives, Thomas explained. Even something as simple as a firm handshake and learning to look people in the eye when speaking was an important lesson taught to each of the Dreamers. “It really instills confidence and gives these kids a boost. Our program addresses the whole child,” said Tom.


HIGH EXPECTATIONS The Greensboro Dreamers toured the Georgia Southern University campus during one of their school breaks.

LESSONS LEARNED

“Kathy and I have always believed that education is the key – instead of giving kids a fish, we teach them how to fish,” Tom said. That meant giving the Dreamers the opportunities and tools to succeed and rewarding their hard work.

The Dreamers learned their first lesson after report cards were issued in first grade. “We took the kids to a movie theater,” Kathy recalled. Everyone was so excited, because they had never been. The next time, we only took the kids who were on the honor roll. There were tears, because everyone wanted to go. After that, the kids were all motivated to earn honor roll. The next time report cards came out, we had to hire a bus to get everyone to the theater,” she explained. “The kids understood that good grades bring good things. Through the years, they have discovered that if you try hard in life, nice things will fall into your lap.”

Some of those experiences have included more than 80 in-state trips to museums, theaters, camps, college campuses and sporting events. A large number of Dreamers also earned special trips to Chicago, Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Dallas and New York City, as a reward for grades, attendance, behavior and effort. For some of the students, it was their first trip in an airplane, said Kathy. When Woods was 13, she earned her first airplane flight to Colorado to attend a nationwide Dreamers conference, and met other Dreamers from New York, California and the Dominican Republic.

COLLEGE PREP

As the Dreamers were closing in on their final years of high school, Thomas and the Kellys packed in job shadowing opportunities, worked on resumé preparation and visited colleges and universities with the Dreamers during their Spring and Fall Breaks. Volunteers presented college workshops for Dreamers’ parents and students that discussed graduation requirements, drug awareness and finances.

“We hosted a college boot camp in May for the students, and provided them with a lot of information about networking in college, peer pressure, choosing friends, time management and making good choices. The kids got these messages from a lot of different sources,” said Thomas, which included guest speakers ranging from college students to college professors.

THE DREAMERS: PHASE II

In May, many relatives, close friends and donors from all over the United States gathered in Greensboro to celebrate the Dreamers’ graduation weekend. “Some of our donors were just meeting the Dreamers for the first time. Several said to me, ‘We’ve been so tired of you bragging about these kids over the years, but after we met them, we decided you didn’t brag enough,’ ” said Tom proudly about their accomplishments.

“These kids have truly earned it,” he added, about the Dreamers’ years of dedication and hard work, and there is no doubt that Thomas and the Kellys have succeeded in their mission of teaching the Dreamers to become productive citizens and leaders in their community.

“One hundred percent of our Dreamers graduated on time, compared to a graduation rate of only 31 percent at their school. Many of these kids will be the first member of their family to go to college,” he added. The Dreamers’ statistics are impressive: 85 percent are attending a four-year college – a record for their community – while the remainder are pursuing a two-year associate’s degree at trade schools. Furthermore, 23 Dreamers earned the HOPE scholarship, which required a 3.0 high school GPA.

“As a Dreamer, I was pushed,” said Edwards, “and we were expected to go beyond just being successful. Of course, we were fussed at, but it was all done out of love. We were always told to be thankful for what we have and always give back. Mr. K always told us that we are as good as anyone else, and better than most,” she added.

In addition to Georgia Southern, the Dreamers are attending 15 other colleges including the University of Georgia, the College of Coastal Georgia, Georgia State University, Georgia Tech, Valdosta State College and University and Georgia College and State University, to name a few. This is the beginning of “Phase II” as Thomas and the Kellys like to call it, and they have found that their work is far from over. The support that Edwards, Woods and the rest of the Dreamers have relied on for the past dozen years will remain in place during their collegiate experience. “These past 12 years have been a whirlwind, and we are visiting each of the kids on their campuses during our initial swing of the South tour,” said Kathy, about the first of several visits the couple will make every year the Dreamers are in college.

Thomas will also be on the road for the next five years, making monthly trips to visit the Dreamers at their respective campuses. “I will be checking in with the kids and helping them during the transition,” she said, much to the relief of Edwards and Woods. “I have been so overwhelmed, I wouldn’t know what to do without Miss Beth,” said pre-dental student Edwards, about the excitement of her new collegiate experience. “We live in a bubble in Greensboro, and now we are navigating a whole new system and way of life.”

Now that the Kellys have honored their promise of providing a college education for the Dreamers, these two young women will continue working hard to fulfill their dreams for the future and provide assistance to others in need. “Mrs.Khas always talked to us about paying it forward in whatever way you can,” said Woods, who is studying to become a psychologist.

“This is a 17-year commitment, but we’ve never looked back. Aside from our family, it is the most rewarding thing we have ever done,” said Tom.

The Greensboro Dreamers has also been a life-changing experience for Thomas. “I think of the Dreamers as my own children,” said the mother of two young sons. I get my fill from them. They needed me, but I needed them too. I just want to feel that I have made a difference in a child’s life,” Thomas said.

For Woods, her years with Miss Beth, Mr. and Mrs. K and her close-knit group of brothers and sisters, as she calls them, have provided much more than just learning experiences. “We’re a family,” she said.

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