Aaron Jones is only 12 years old, but he already knows what he wants to be when he grows up.
"I want to be a lawyer," said Jones, a sixth grade student at Howard Road Academy, a public charter school in Southeast Washington D.C.
Jones is several steps ahead of most of his peers, who not only do not know what career they want to pursue, but do not even know if they will graduate from high school. In addition to having a supportive mother, Jones is also fortunate enough to be a member of Dreamers, the McLean Immanuel Presbyterian Church youth group that is made up of students in grades 4-11 from Garden Memorial Church in Anacostia.
This is Immanuel Presbyterian Church's second group of Dreamers. The first group started their program in 1990, after the McLean congregation decided that the church needed to find some sort of community-minded project for its members.
"Very basically, we were going to build a new building over here, and before we did something for ourselves, we wanted to do something for our community first," said church member Michael Orend.
Orend and other members of the congregation spent several months looking at a variety of community service projects, but finally settled on becoming a part of the “I Have a Dream Program” which helps children from low income areas reach their education and career goals by providing them with tutoring and mentoring.
"We came back and said the congregation was going to have to spend half a million dollars to participate in this program, will you pledge that? And they gave us the go-ahead," said Orend.
That first group of students has since completed the program, and several of them have gone on to college as a result of their participation.
"There were about 66 kids in that first group, we had 44 graduate high school, 33 go to college and 17 graduate from college," said Orend.
Not every child reaped the benefits of the mentoring program. Among those 66 students, two were charged with murder, and two were murdered, as was one of the student's mothers.
"We also had several students end up in jail, and several who just got caught up in their neighborhood scene," said Orend. "You don't win everything, but you win enough to make it worth it."
THE IMMANUEL PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH in McLean is now working with its second group of Dreamers. On April 1, the I Have A Dream program volunteers, also known as the Changing Lives Task Force, hosted the students at their church, which is located on Savile Road. The students were fed breakfast that was cooked and served by volunteers from McLean High School. They then discussed plans to create a Web site for their group, and plans for a senior mission trip this summer to Guatemala. The session ended with a hip hop dance lesson from the Synergy Hip Hop Troupe.
"We really believe the kids need physical activity," said Changing Lives Task Force member Derrick Crandall. "Living in Anacostia, they can't get out and ride bikes and do activities outside like we can here in McLean."
The Synergy Hip Hop Troupe instructors, Azure Baron Madison and Jaime Ponce-Morales, both teach at several local Bally's Fitness Centers. They offer their services at almost no cost to the church.
"We like community programs, and we are always trying to do them and help out," said Baron Madison.
However, the program is primarily focused on helping the Dreamers with their academics and their future goals.
"They don't have role models," said Crandall. "So we try to expose them to a variety of professions that might have been invisible to them otherwise… the kids need to know about these jobs so they can learn and study in their field of talent. We have some very smart kids."
McLean resident and Immanuel Presbyterian Church member Lee Rainie has been actively involved with the second round of Dreamers. Rainie said that the congregation volunteers decided to refer to themselves as the Changing Lives Task Force because not only are they helping to change the lives of the students, but the students are "changing our lives just as deeply." Rainie says that he is touched by the Dreamers on a regular basis, and that a recent field trip to the Air and Space Museum stood out in his mind in particular.
"They had a special kite-making program, so the kids got to make their own kites," said Rainie. "All of the kids in my group were in to the experience, and they really wanted to show me their work and see what I thought of it, and to have them coming to me to seek that sort of validation showed me a glimpse of how important they are to me and potentially how important and connected I am to them."
THE CHANGING LIVES TASK FORCE meets with the Dreamers approximately three weekends a month. Although most of those sessions are focused on providing the students with school tutoring, some of them involve fun activities and field trips.
"We've been to the Air and Space Museum and the Spy Museum," said Aaron Jones, noting that his favorite trip so far was the Spy Museum.
Jones says that he likes the Dreamers program and that he does not have difficulty doing well in school.
"As long as you do what you're supposed to, it's not hard," said Jones.
Jacqueline Neal, 15, said she loves the Dreamers program and that she would not change anything about it.
"We do our homework most of the time, but we also go on trips — we learn a lot of stuff," said Neal, who plans to go to college and pursue a career in cosmetology.
The rewards of the I Have A Dream program have ensured it a permanent place in the hearts of the Immanuel Presbyterian Church congregation.
"Sometimes it's a lot of work, but overall, we are very happy with the program," said Crandall. "What inspires me are the people who are here weekend after weekend, donating their time and making an effort."
Michael Orend says that the I Have A Dream program is also special because the relationships with the students are ongoing. For Orend this is particularly true as his daughter ended up adopting two of the children from the first group of Dreamers.
"It doesn't end," said Orend. "We are still in contact with some of these students, and we are still in contact with some of the mothers. We have made lifetime connections."