Serendipity brought Matt Carvin to Wilmington, NC, last fall. Tracy Wilkes, the founder of DREAMS of Wilmington, was planning to step down as executive director after an 18-year reign. Her guidance led to DREAMS receiving the 2007 President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities’ Coming Up Taller Award, the nation’s highest honor for afterschool and out-of-school arts and humanities programs. Upon her exit, Wilkes hoped to give new blood to her nonprofit—an influx of fresh, creative spirit that could continue to pump success into the multi-disciplinary arts program for underserved youth, ages 8 to 18.
Carvin happened to apply for the job last summer. He, too, was planning on stepping away from his own nonprofit, Creative Access, after starting it 10 years ago. A classically trained guitarist, Carvin began the program at his alma mater, Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute, after feeling the constraints of being in a small practice room for five or six hours a day as part of its conservatory program.
“It’s very self-centered,” he relays of his training. “You’re constantly working on small, minute motions with your fingers, playing esoteric music and trying to perfect it. And you’re not thinking about the community as much. Six hours a day of doing that will change your character to some degree.”
After realizing the missing link came from lack of playing for an audience, Carvin took his musicianship across the community with a group of friends. They played senior centers, veterans hospitals, schools, and afterschool programs for free and for folks who normally wouldn’t hear such music.
“It was an altruistic thing, but it was also a way for musicians to experience the joy of playing and practicing in front of people,” he says. “And I started to realize what a huge part of being a musician and artist that is: interaction with people.”
Creative Access took off, and began partnering with Hopkins and other community organizations in and around the Baltimore area. Upon Carvin’s departure, it was the largest student-volunteer music outreach program in the country.
“It was a tough decision: to step away,” he says, “but it was the right one. The one thing you want as a founder is for your organization to succeed, and all leadership has an expiration date on it. When it’s time to pass the torch, that’s the best thing you can do for the organization.”
Once he and Wilkes met and realized they each shared a passion for arts, community give-back and watching their nonprofits mature beyond their own visions, excitement set in upon their new journeys. Wilkes handed over DREAMS last October in order to help her husband, Paul, continue to work on their nonprofit, Homes for Hope, which aids Salesian nuns and orphan girls in India. Carvin turned over Creative Access to gain a new dream down South.
“I hit the ground running,” he says excitedly. “But I was very conscious not to come in swinging and changing things, but to be a listener. I spent a lot of time with the staff, volunteers, the board, getting to know students and parents, and meeting constituents in the community. I think on the third day here I had coffee with Ben David, the district attorney, just to find out the issues of Wilmington and his relationship with DREAMS. I tried not to cast my vision on things but to understand, to get a newbie’s perspective.”
DREAMS has been a catalyst of change and hope for disadvantaged kids in Wilmington—many of whom have reduced or free lunch at school—thanks to its multitude of arts classes taught by top-tier artists in the community. Kevin Lee-y Green of Techmoja Dance Company teaches dance. Local potter Renoato Abbate teaches ceramics. Shadow puppeteer and WHQR radio host Gina Gambony teaches theatre. Local guitarist Laura McLean teaches music. Visual artists Michael Van Hout, Fritzi Huber and Lorraine Scalamoni are only a few more of the mentors.
“DREAMS has a lot of depth to it,” Carvin boasts. “Our teachers focus on aesthetic, but it’s more about the development of the human being inside. About getting the kids to open up through the arts; creating work, selling it out in the public, and seeing people react to it and having it empower the kids. That’s a big thing with DREAMS: We have the best teaching artists in town. They’re the top; the pinnacle—the bit at the end of the drill that turns coal into diamonds. They really are teaching artists: someone who sees teaching as an art form and works collaboratively with the kids.”
Aside from their afterschool programs—each of which is two hours long, two days a week for many kids—DREAMS teachers do outreach within the community as well, at up to 14 various sites. They work at multiple schools, like DC Virgo and Snipes, as well as at the YMCA and the community arts center. In fact, since the YMCA’s fire a few weeks ago, their 10th-and-Fanning-streets facility—a 12,000 square foot, 1939 bus maintenance garage—is hosting many of the Y’s workout classes in DREAMS’ renovated state-of-the-art dance room.
“One of the reasons I was frustrated working in Baltimore is that it’s a bureaucratic machine with a lot of red tape and competition between nonprofits, with a finite pie of funding,” Carvin says. “Here there’s a sense of collaboration instead of competition. There’s 30 different organizations we depend on and who depend on our services, too. It means more to focus on the kid and the family and what they need; it’s way cooler to work together toward a great cause.”
Since DREAMS’ inception in 1996, the program has grown from teaching arts to a mere 40 kids to upward of 600 or more through its onsite classes and outreach programs across three counties, with 4,000-plus volunteer hours invested. Kids who have continued the program all graduated high school, with 99 percent going on to college or the military.
“It’s a staggering thing,” Carvin says. “There’s a focus and empowerment behind being a creative person that goes beyond the arts. Kids are thinking of the world in a different light. Before they were only focused on themselves and didn’t realize how rules changed: that you act in a certain way at school, at home, at your job, with friends, with family, in the community. We all do. But sometimes kids coming from places of poverty don’t see that. They’re used to the talk-down structure. They’re used to not having opportunities or being encouraged as atypical learners. When you come to DREAMS and sit down in one of the classes, you will see teachers showing them how to work like an artist, how to solve problems like an artist, how to come to conclusions and refine things…there’s just excitement.”
It translates in quantifiable terms for research grants, according to Carvin. Until last year, DREAMS was 80 percent grant funded and 20 percent privately funded. The new strategic plan has reversed those numbers. DREAMS only allows 25 percent of its students to be from paying families.
Fundraising is not an easy task for any nonprofit. For DREAMS it has come with growth by leaps and bounds. The program started in the Children’s Museum of Wilmington before moving into the former Union Missionary Baptist Church for 14 years. Today it’s located in a WPA facility, with 8,500 sqaure feet renovated into a multitude of classrooms, a student lounge and administrative offices. The next phase of their plan includes working on the remaining 4,000 square feet, which will be a performance space, and a venue for other arts and nonprofit organizations to rent for shows or galas. The slated cost for its completion is $450,000; DREAMS has $45,000 to go to reach their goal.
It’s a topic Carvin is excited to talk about; he envisions broadening the scope of DREAMS into the community. An acre and a half of land surrounds it, which is owned by the city; the city works directly with DREAMS, renting the current property to them for a mere $1 a year. Carvin sees massive potential; the entire area is a perfect place to host outdoor gatherings, whether in the form of a multi-stage music festival, farmers’ markets or even family-friendly films possibly hosted in conjunction with the Cucalrous Film Festival.
“I think it’s going to be a real game-changer,” he says. “Our center is on the northside of downtown, and the city is very invested in this youth-enrichment zone because it has the highest areas of poverty and highest teen pregnancy rates and drop-out rates. We’re right in the middle of it purposely. We are in the trenches; we want the kids to be able to walk right to us. The city wants us here as a means to help rejuvenate the area and believe the arts are there to do it.”
The renovation will draw more people to the northside, as already anchored by the Brooklyn Arts Center and Cape Fear Community College’s Fine Arts and Humanities Center, which is slated to open this spring. “We’re hoping to become the nexus of the area for theatre,” he envisions. “To bring people from the beaches, Landfall and other areas to support us. Once that happens, everything changes.”
They want to work the Cameron Art Museum to add to DREAMS’ artsy façade and even envision a catering space for functions which may be hosted there. The exposed brick of the building showcases old mason marks, reminiscent of the historic city it represents. “We want to preserve as much of that as we can,” Carvin says. “The giant wooden doors will be repurposed, too.”
Part of the doors will be made into a 19-to-20-foot-tall Giving Tree. It will highlight names of all donors that help make DREAMS performance arts center a reality. Handmade birds in mixed media, all created by DREAMS students, will adorn the tree. “We need consensus from the community and our constituents,” Carvin explains.
Aside from their phase-two renovations, DREAMS continues adding to their arts programs each semester. The school functions on the notion that it’s “student-led but teacher-supported.” Students take an active measure in deciding what they’d like to learn in the arts sector, whether it be salsa dancing, pen-and-ink drawing or even digital arts. DREAMS also hosts a camp program twice during the summer, which lasts all day, five days a week for three weeks.
“It’s a much more intensive experience,” Carvin says. “It’s more collaborative. It could be music theatre, where the costume class works with dance class, who works with theatre, and at the end they do a show together.”
To help with fundraising efforts, DREAMS of Wilmington is the beneficiary of encore’s 2015 Best Of Awards Party, which will be held this Saturday, February 28, at the Brooklyn Arts Center on North Fourth Street. The DREAMS staff, along with comedians and hosts Pineapple-Shaped Lamps, have planned an ‘80s dance party to celebrate all the winners and runners-up of the annual reader’s poll. Attendees are encourgaed to don their most spunky ‘80s fashion for a chance to be crowned prom king and queen. All monies from ticket sales and raffle items at the event will be donated to DREAMS. A battle of the bands will take place between Best Band nominees The Midatlantic and L Shape Lot. Laura McLean and New Riders of the Calamity will play, and DJ KB will spin tunes, as well. Food from numerous nominees will be handed out throughout the evening.