COLUMBIA — In 1995, Sky Jimenez and Sherryl Laws started the "Celebrate the Dream" mentorship program with Parkade Elementary School. But after 18 years, the program has ended due to new enforcement of transportation regulations.
Celebrate the Dream started when Jimenez, then a counselor at Parkade, and Laws, who was a social worker, heard about an interview with Columbia junior high and high school students. As Jimenez recalled it, the students thought there were no African-American professionals in Columbia — no doctors, teachers or police officers.
The problem, as Jimenez interpreted it, was a lack of exposure to African-American professionals. She started Celebrate the Dream — its name a nod to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream speech" — to show students there were many African-American professionals in the community. The program, held in February, introduced children to career opportunities.
For most of its existence, the program was aimed at fifth-graders. Originally, they were paired up with mentors and went with them to their jobs. Later, Jimenez added a classroom component in which she prepared students to meet with mentors through lessons on social skills, manners, interview skills and black history.
After the six weeks of lessons, the children were paired with a professional who let them job-shadow. About a week later, mentors and students met up again at a celebration luncheon at Columbia College.
From the beginning, transportation was an issue. A combination of volunteer drivers and district transportation was used over the years. This year, the plan was to rent district vehicles and ask for volunteer drivers.
But in August, Jimenez received an email from the district's Transportation Department which said that anyone using district vehicles would need to get a chauffeur's license. Getting this license would require volunteers to attend training sessions.
Jimenez said she went to principal Amy Watkins, and they concluded it was time to end the program.
Ellis Ingram, senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion at the MU School of Medicine, was a mentor in the program since it began. Ingram founded a science club called CALEB, or Called to Academic and Leadership Excellence and Building character and confidence. Along with his wife, Pamela, he founded an after-school program called Granny’s House.
He said Celebrate the Dream was important because it builds relationships.
"You don’t know who a person is unless you get in their environment," Ingram said. "It involves me understanding you and getting to know you. When we understand each other, we have a different kind of relationship."
When Ingram took students around his workplace, he showed them how to look through a microscope and recognize certain cancer cells.
"There is no greater enjoyment then seeing that ‘wow’ moment when they see something exciting in an area they might be interested in," Ingram said.
After the experience, students want to work harder at school because they see all the opportunities out there for them, Ingram said.
Steve Calloway, an MU pharmacist, former Columbia School Board member and mentor of the Celebrate the Dream program for more than 10 years, said he was disappointed that the program had to come to an end.
Calloway said mentors looked forward to this event every year. "There will be a big gap in the kids and mentors," he said.
Calloway recalled a fifth-grade girl he mentored years ago. She was so inspired by her experience with the program and her time spent with Calloway that she later pursued a career in pharmacy, he said.
"Kids need the opportunity to learn about what is available to them," Calloway said. "You can read a book about Washington, D.C., but going on vacation to Washington, D.C., is so much more."
Even though the program has come to an end, Watkins said Parkade Elementary plans to incorporate the ideals of the program and continue its message. One way is through monthly Breakfast of Champions in which classrooms are open to parents and community members to encourage students one on one in setting goals for their futures.
"This program is a historical piece of Parkade," Watkins said, "and we see this as an opportunity so the rest of the school can benefit."