Dreams & Dreamers

BY Marimar McNaughton

Since 1996 a very special award-winning Wilmington program has offered literary visual and performing arts education for children who would otherwise not have the same kind of creative opportunity to explore learn grow and excel.  The inspiring stories of Daren Jackson and Darrin Long are proof-positive that the future is bright for both.

Daren Jackson slipped out of his Sunday-best black suit opened the collar of his black button-down dress shirt and changed into a pair of khaki cargo shorts on the hottest day of the year last month. With a heat index of 106 degrees Fahrenheit it was a fitting climax for his Wilmington career a big bye-bye to his family friends and the supporters of the DREAMS Center for Arts Education that nurtured him to this point. This fall Jackson will leave the nest to join the ranks of the North Carolina School of the Arts.

He stood near an open window on the second floor of St. Marys Tileston Auditorium and looked over Fifth Avenue and the intersection of Ann Street that leads to DREAMS. He had come full circle first as a student at St. Marys and second as a DREAMer. His gaze bridged the distance back in time to his earliest memory of attending the arts after-school program in 2000.

“That was half my life ago. When I first went there it was for acting. They were doing improv exercises like Pretend you have gum on your shoes now pretend youre a cat now pretend youre 50 years old now pretend youre 100 years old now pretend youre 200 years old and I just fell down ” Jackson 16 says laughing.

From theatre he segued into music and when he met musician Laura McLean she became his rap coach songwriting instructor and CD producer giving him his first computer and his first bass guitar.

When he takes to the stage McLeans protg changes the energy in the room in the DREAMS Center sanctuary at the International Longshoremens Association hall during the annual holiday showcase at the University of North Carolinas Warwick Center Ballroom during the DREAMS Cabaret annual gala or at the proscenium at the Tileston Auditorium at St. Marys (on the hottest day of the year) while McLean runs his sound board.

For his farewell concert he streamed together original hip hop tunes like “Move On” with the UB40 cover “Red Red Wine” and Mos Defs “New World Water ” backed by live music performed by his peers and sang duets with his mother and muse Melinda Miles.

In the lobby he sold and autographed copies of his CD “Hungry Emcee ” and said “I wanted to do this just to do it but also because Im going to go to School of the Arts next year and I wanted to have a big blowout until we meet again Wilmington.”

Jacksons ascension to the School of the Arts is a first for DREAMS whose co-founder and executive director Tracy Wilkes developed the program to provide a creative outlet to disadvantaged youth who otherwise would not have access to an arts education. Now in its 11th year DREAMS is outgrowing its headquarters having to turn students away each year while achieving and over-achieving its initial goals: DREAMers graduate from high school; DREAMers apply to college and attend undergraduate programs throughout the state. With Daren Jacksons departure the school observes yet another unprecedented milestone.

Occupying the center front row of Big Darens rap concert was Little Darrin Long 10 his two sisters Dyna 11 and Demiya 9 and their mother Jennifer Bellamy.

“Hey Darrin ” Jackson says slapping a high five. “Hey Daren ” Long replies.

Because of their aptitude for dance the Long children are among several DREAMers that attend The Dance Cooperative on 17th Street (another home away from home) where they study advanced ballet and modern dance with Anne Firmender and other founding members of The Dance Cooperative.

“At DREAMS they get such a nice well-rounded education in all of the arts ” Firmender says. “Whenever DREAMS has any students that show potential in dance they recommend them to us so that they can study more intensely.”

Darrin who travels around his mothers home by sliding down the banister onto the top of the piano and lowering himself to the living room couch says he first woke up to dance through the film Honey the story of a young woman who wanted to open a hip hop studio to keep kids off the street. “When I was little ” says the 10-year-old “I played that movie and I danced to it over and over and over.”

Three of Jennifer Bellamys four children attend DREAMS. “That program has been so amazing ” she says. “My kids have done 360s in their character and attitudes since they started. With Dyna its been a huge difference. She had such issues with self confidence how she looked. Shes beautiful so you cant imagine her thinking like that but DREAMS really has changed that. You just cant put it into words.”

Darrin comes close summing up the DREAMS experience with one heartfelt phrase “Its wonderful ” and his two-week residency with the Carolina Ballet with another “It was great.”

Julie Janus Walters danced with the Joffrey Ballet for 16 years before joining the staff of the Carolina Ballet as a guest artist and has been the assistant director of its summer dance residency for two years.

Walters says that Darrin is naturally gifted a fast learner or what they call in the trade a quick study. “If you give a long entailed combination hes one of the kids who can pick it up right away has a natural coordination for the step given can go across the floor many times without a mistake. Once you see that natural gift to learn things quickly you can work with that train that mold that and eventually you come out with a brilliant dancer.”

Vincent Holmes agrees. Teaching ballet African dance and samba for seven years at DREAMS he met Darrin Long about three years ago.

“I just know he can go very far ” says Holmes who grew up in Jacksonville North Carolina and attended the International Ballet Dance Center in Carnegie Hall. “I single him out because hes a boy and you dont see many boys with a passion to dance. They may have that passion but because of society they really dont go for it. Darrin is such a dancer that doesnt matter to him; he just does what he loves to do. Hes a very awesome ballet dancer and I saw the passion he had for it.”

A passion Holmes says that manifests itself when Darrin is at the barre. “He is so focused no talking no nothing just perfection. When Darrin walks into class hes at full attention. Hes the perfect student. Hes what a ballet teacher wants to see.”

The big question is: Whats the next step for Darrin Long? Holmes hopes to introduce Darrin to New York for a summer session Walters says the Carolina Ballet would love to welcome Darrin back next year and Firmender Bellamy and Wilkes contemplate an audition for the North Carolina School of the Arts in the years to come.

Meanwhile as Daren Jackson packs his bags and heads for Winston-Salem his fan base sheds bittersweet tears.

“Were excited that hes going but hes going to be missed so much ” Bellamy says. “The little kids when they see him they light up like hes Santa Claus or something. I love him. Hes such an amazing guy. I keep telling him Im your biggest fan but I cant be his mamas got to be.”

And so the dreams continue.

Dream Big

The DREAMS Center for Arts Education was founded in 1996 by a team of clinical social workers child psychologists teaching artists and other individuals who believe that every child has the right to a top-notch artistic education regardless of their economic status. More than simply art for arts sake the programs mission is to build creative committed citizens one child at a time by providing youth in need with high-quality free-of-charge classes in the literary visual and performing arts.

In 2007 the program was recognized with the Presidents Committee on the Arts and Humanities Coming Up Taller Award the nations highest honor for after-school and out-of-school arts and humanities programming.

“Our job is not just to provide a quality arts education but to build a cornerstone upon which children who have experienced neglect abuse and poverty can begin to create a future filled with promise and hope ” says executive director Tracy Wilkes.

DREAMS serves more than 600 children each year at its inner-city center in downtown Wilmington as well as at outreach sites in New Hanover Brunswick and Pender Counties including city recreation centers public housing sites the New Hanover County Juvenile Day Treatment Center after-school programs and schools. Classes are led by professional teaching artists and run the gamut from ceramics to world dance CD production African drumming photography poetry ballet and more.

In addition to its weekly classes DREAMS has three major initiatives: public art youth entrepreneurship and visiting artists. Public art projects have included indoor murals at DaVita Dialysis Center the Office of Juvenile Justice and the City of Wilmingtons Community Services office; a paint-and-mosaic mural as well as mosaic trash cans in the New Castle Art and Antique District; a sign for the Food Banks garden; and most recently a 13-foot-tall giraffe sculpture that stands proudly at Greenfield Lake Park. The youth entrepreneurship program empowers students to value market and sell their artwork in a variety of venues and the visiting artists program gives students the opportunity to learn from nationally and internationally-renowned artists.

Want to come out and support DREAMS? Cabaret the organizations major annual fundraiser will be held on Saturday October 4 at UNCWs Burney Center Ballroom. For information or tickets call 772-1501. Emily Colin