Steve Harvey helps South Florida teens live the Disney Dream

Florida students meet Steve Harvey and enjoy a weekend in early March at Walt Disney World Resort during 2016 Disney Dreamers Academy.
Florida students meet Steve Harvey and enjoy a weekend in early March at Walt Disney World Resort during 2016 Disney Dreamers Academy. Photo provided by Disney Dreamers Academy

K’deja Correa’s mom said she knew when her daughter was 5 that she had special artistic talents.

“She had a Barbie doll and she would take off what the doll was wearing and make her own clothes. She is an overachiever. But she also friendly and open-minded,” Shirniece Benjamin said about her daughter. “I don’t know how these miracles happen ... they just do. She is in the gifted program at her school and she is just awesome.”

Benjamin believes that it was one of those “miracles” that K’deja’s grandmother Ita Benjamin was watching the Steve Harvey show one day and heard the television host talk about the Disney Dreamers Academy and what a wonderful opportunity it is for youngsters.

“My grandmother said, ‘This is for you,’” said K’deja, 17, and a junior at Michael Krop Senior High in Northeast Miami-Dade. “At the time, I thought only seniors could apply. I did some research and learned the academy was also open to freshmen. So, I applied and got accepted on my first try.”

At the graduation and awards ceremony, K’deja was the winner of the Essence Scholarship award.

The Disney Dreamers Academy is just what it says it is. It is a place where teenagers 13 to 19 come with their dreams for the future and are given a jump start in achieving them.

K’deja’s dream is to become a fashion designer and photojournalist. At the Dreamers Academy, she was encouraged to move forward on both dreams.

In her academy application letter, K’deja wrote: “When I was younger, I had an intense hatred for myself. But as I grew older, I saw other children who were bullied and had other problems. I decided that I shouldn’t tear myself down because there are other kids who have committed suicide because they don’t like themselves or because of bullying. I decided to make myself an object of positivity. ...

“I learned so much, being a Dreamer, not only to make my dream a priority, but to also make lasting relationships. I developed a new perspective just being there,” K’deja wrote. “I learned that its not only about my dream, but also about what steps I need to be taking to move forward.”

The academy, hosted by Harvey and Essence magazine, brought in the best motivational speakers, as well as actors and entertainers. There was something for every teen there.

“Disney Dreamers Academy is a one-of-a-kind program that, since its inception, is helping more than 800 students achieve their dreams,” said Tracey D. Powell, vice president of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts and the academy’s executive champion.

Michele Ebanks, president of Essence Communications and whose father was the late Tom Washington, a Miami businessman and radio personality, said, “Our expectation is that this group of remarkable teens will be the leaders of tomorrow and positively impact the world for years to come. It is our honor and commitment at Essence to be part of that process.”

In addition to Harvey, Powell and Ebanks, there were 17 other motivational speakers, actors, producers and business executives who took the academy participants to places in their world the youngsters had only dreamed about.

The teens were introduced to experts who could help them on their journey in classes called “Deep Dives.” This is where the youngsters got one-on-one help from the experts.

Speakers and experts included included Essence Editor-At-Large Mikki Taylor; Walt Disney World President George Kalogridis; gospel singer and radio host Yolanda Adams; Steve Perry, education advocate, motivational speaker and founder and principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School; motivational speaker Jonathan Sprinkles; and Jaylen Bledsoe, a 16-year-old motivational speaker, entrepreneur and CEO of Bledsoe Technologies.

When someone asked Jaylen how he stayed focused, he said: “I haven’t dated in three years. I can’t allow anyone to decrease my dreams.”

Other speakers included Harvey’s daughters Brandi and Karli; actors Lamman Rucker, Marcus Scribner, Loni Love and Tamera Mowry of TV’s The Real; rapper MC Lyte; and Roberta Shields, mother of rapper Ludacris.

The 100 students attending the ninth annual Disney Dreamers Academy were selected from thousands of applicants across the country.

Valeria Hanson, 18, and a senior at Archbishop Coleman Carroll High School, was one of the four participants from South Florida. She said her mom introduced her to the academy after coming across it on Facebook. “She passed along the links to me and I fell in love with the program. I knew I had to apply,” Hanson said. “I was blessed to be accepted on my very first try.”

The program and its graduation ceremony, at which the parents presented their children with “graduation” rings, was almost a “fast forward of what my high school graduation will be like,” she said. “All of us here, have to say goodbye. But we made a promise to see each other again.”

Hanson’s dream is to be “a lot of things,” she said. “Right now I want to be an actor, writer and film director. I want to use the arts to create a more diverse arts community. I heard about the Oscars and I want to create a community that would have more positions available to minorities and women through filmmaking,” she said.

An only child, Hanson’s parents are Maribel, who works for Broward Elections, and Mark, a chef. “At [Disney Dreamers Academy], I learned that my dreams are possible,” Hanson said. “It is easy to be discouraged when you don’t know if your dreams are attainable. I learned to keep striving to make my dreams come true. I am a new person since this experience.” One of her dreams is to attend Columbia University in New York.

“This is the most important experience she has had,” her mother said. “The kids there not only had dreams for themselves, they have dreams for others, too. [The academy] was a life-changing experience, not only for my daughter, but for me also. We parents got a lot of advice on how to be a part of our children’s dreams and goals.”

Justin Gonzalez, 17, is a senior at G. Holmes Braddock High School and said he, too, was selected on his first try.

“I have many dreams,” he said, “but the one I want to accomplish the most is to invent a body armor for soldiers and first responders that would be lightweight, yet highly protective.” He said the body armor he wants to produce will still be designed out of heavy armor, but is made on an eco-skeleton. “It’s like the armor is on a stand and the person gets into it while it’s on the stand. That way all the weight will be on the stand and not on the person wearing it.”

Justin said a lot of his family members, including his dad and two uncles, have been in the military. He is currently in the Naval Junior ROTC at his school. “I thought of a lot of my family and friends who are going off to battle zones and I want to help protect them and get them back home safe.” He has been researching his project for about eight months. “So far, I am just researching into materials and how to create something that would have the least amount of weight and still be safe.”

He and his twin brother, Ryan, are Silver Knight nominees at their school: Ryan for sports; Justin for science.

Said mom Maruja Gonzalez: “It was a thrilling day when Justin got the package saying he was accepted. He made us all very proud. I could never have imagined such a phenomenal event.”

Kirby Gilmore, 15, said she learned about the academy from her mom’s friends in Ohio.

Kirby, a 10th-grader at Coral Reef Senior High School in Richmond Heights, said, “I am motivated to be something great because I have something I can share with others. My dream is to help others achieve their dreams. I love to help people and to cheer up others.”

Kirby’s dream is to become a veterinarian, focusing on wildlife conservation. “There are a lot of animals now that in a few years will become either critically endangered, or even extinct because of human decisions to pollute the air, water and tear down the animal habitat. I also want to minor in music because I think music is a gift to people.”

Kirby’s parents are Tiffany and Willis Gilmore. Mom is a motivational speaker and runs a nonprofit public-speaking program and contest. Her dad is a construction contractor.

“I learned from the [Dreamers] experience that if you have a dream, you should go for it ... write down your dreams or put it on a vision board. At [the academy], Steve Harvey challenged all of us to write down 500 things we want to do. Right now I’m only at 400.”

She said the academy also helped her to understand that she should stay with another dream she has of creating a clothing line called Keep It Real Be Yourself. The first letter of each word spells out her name. “That will be my slogan and the name of my company,” Kirby said.