Tracy Wilkes’ nearly two decades of work as executive director of DREAMS of Wilmington (DREAMS)—a nationally renowned nonprofit, which provides a platform for disadvantaged youth to grow through exposure to the arts—is the epitomizes community-building. Currently, DREAMS, which began in 1996, provides over 60 free, arts-based classes—pottery, painting, music, sewing, design, theatre, dance, and the like—per week to nearly 800 children (ages 8 to 18) who qualify for free and reduced lunch in New Hanover County.
“If you give the kids a chance, they will accomplish more sometimes than you ever thought they were capable of,” Wilkes says. “That’s all it’s about, just an opportunity. I also think a good arts education and exposure levels the playing field in some way for these kids. There’s nothing better at the end of the day than seeing a kid with a big smile.”
At the end of October, Wilkes will step down from her position at DREAMS, which in 2007 was awarded the President´s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities’ Coming Up Taller Award—the nation´s highest honor for after-school and out-of-school programs. As well, DREAMS boasts a 100-percent high-school graduation rate among its students, with 99 percent of them going on to college, the military or vocational job training. That’s compared to an overall 25 percent graduation rate among disadvantaged youth in New Hanover County.
“I’m very proud of those statistics, Wilkes says. “The retention rate we have with kids is over 50 percent. When we get a child at the age of 8, we often wave goodbye at 18. We have kids involved with the program for 10 years.”
This Saturday, September 27, the annual DREAMS Presents gala will raise funds for the organizations’ programs through an art sale—wherein artists will donate half the proceeds from their sold work. They’ll also raise a glass to the outgoing executive director with a toast and roast. Her successor, a musician who has started his own thriving nonprofit, will be unveiled at the gala.
“I think in order to keep an organization really vital and on top of things, you need new energy and new blood—young blood,” Wilkes says, explaining her decision to step down. “I’m not trying to be ageist, but you need new ideas. I think founders often have a problem letting go, moving on, and letting their organization move on.”
Abdicating her position will allow her to spend more time with her husband, Paul Wilkes—a journalist, author and former film and creative writing professor at UNCW. She plans to help him with his nonprofit organization, Homes for Hope, which aids Salesian nuns and orphan girls in India. As well, she and associate director Emily Colin are nearing completion on a how-to kit, so other communities can replicate DREAMS.
Though Wilkes now has a substantial career to reflect upon, she once was a troubled teenager herself, yet overcame her obstacles through the arts, particularly, through creative writing and theatre.
“I finally had a vehicle where I could really express myself,” Wilkes tells. “Instead of engaging in negative behaviors, I started being involved in very life-giving, positive things.”
Taking note from her formative years, the self-proclaimed culture-vulture used creative exercises and play therapy with her patients as a therapist at the Southeastern Mental Health Center during the mid-‘90s. The method eradicated the barriers between Wilkes and her patients. Eventually, DREAMS co-founder Judy Wall recommended an article to her about an LA couple who used dance to reach out to adjudicated Hispanic youth.
“The skill set that you learn through involvement in the creative process is the same skill set you need to succeed at anything in life,” Wilkes says. “If you’re in a show, you have to show up on time, work with a group, and resolve conflicts in a positive way. All these things are really transferable.”
Wilkes noticed North Carolina was cutting arts programs left and right, something still prevalent today. Consequently, there were no free-of-charge arts outlets available to local at-risk youth. Wilkes and Wall compiled a mission statement and a set of goals and objectives in Wilkes’ living room. DREAMS was born.
The Junior League of Wilmington permitted them use of three rooms at the Children’s Museum of Wilmington, then located on Market Street. DREAMS was there for nine months before it moved to the more-spacious former Union Missionary Baptist Church (located on 6th and Ann), where it remained for 14 years. “In the meantime, I’d never given up hope on finding our own building—something that was more suitable,” Wilkes states.
After years of searching, she was approached by the now-defunct Northside Resource Center (NRC). They hoped to share the 12,000 square-foot bus maintenance garage on Fanning Street with DREAMS. Short on funds, the NRC was unable to follow through; however, the city stipulated DREAMS had to take the whole building. “We took a collective deep breath and went for it,” Wilkes details.
Renovations for the first 8,500 square feet ran $850,000. Wilmington’s Community Development Block Grant covered half the costs, and through hardcore fundraising, the building became operational in 2012. Built in 1939, the building’s renovations resulted in them receiving an Adaptive Reuse Award from the Historical Wilmington Foundation.
Now, Wilkes sets her sights on completing the remaining 4,000 square feet. The slated budget is $450,000, and DREAMS has raised all but around $58,000. Once completed, the space will provide extra room for dance and theatre classes. By erecting platform stages or utilizing arena seating, it also will serve as an in-house venue for the open-to-the-public showcases DREAMS puts on each year—which are currently held at D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy. Having the space will cut costs for fundraisers, as they normally must rent event spaces. They also will open the room up to other nonprofits. “It will be fabulous to have [events] in our own space,” Wilkes says. “We’re very excited about it. The possibilities are endless. We’ll have good lighting and a good sound system.”
DREAMS has plans for its backyard, too. It will embark on a new partnership with the Watershed Education for Communities and Officials NC Cooperative Extension at NC State to build a rain garden this spring. “The children will be involved in designing it and picking the plants,” Wilkes says. “We’ll go on tours of other rain gardens that have been done in Wilmington.”
This won’t be DREAMS’ first foray into environmental stewardship: It recently wrapped up a yearlong partnership with the NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher, wherein students learned about the importance of NC waterways and the creatures that dwell within them. They incorporated the knowledge into sea-inspired dance performances and paintings and drawings.
The NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher is one of many partnerships DREAMS has formed in this community. They routinely recommend students who excel in a particular art form to other enrichment programs around the city. As well, UNCW Presents afforded DREAMS 20 tickets for students and their parents to see Mark Morris’ dance performance earlier in the month. Thalian Association has given the nonprofit 40 tickets for their upcoming production of “Peter Pan.” They even invite parents to create art with students, and with the help of a benefactor, send parents and their children to Bald Head Island to experience No Boundaries Art Colony.
“We are a true family, and we don’t just look at our students as free-standing,” Wilkes says. “We look at their families and try to figure out what needs are there. Sometimes we feel very much like we’re a connector. If we notice a child is having trouble seeing something—because we’ve developed an incredible level of trust with parents—we can say, ‘Hey Mom, has little Joey gotten his eyes checked?’ If she doesn’t have the means to do it, we try to figure out how to make that happen.”
Folks will get the chance to pay tribute to Wilkes’ work in bettering this community this weekend. DREAMS alumni will return—some of them graduates from Howard University, ECU, UNC Charlotte, and CFCC.
“The greatest joy over the last 18 years has been when you see a kid’s face light up because they’ve accomplished something great,” Wilkes concludes.
Saturday, September 27, 6 p.m.
Hilton Wilmington Riverside
301 N Water St.