While working at the University of Miami, Brandon Azuka DIBIA Okpalobi became aware of a need for supplemental education in the Black community and took action. In 2014, he founded DIBIA DREAM Academy, an after-school program dedicated to nurturing underprivileged children through STEM and sports curriculum.
There are currently 600 kids enrolled in the program, and it’s growing. The popularity of DREAM Academy can be attributed to the unique approach to learning. Okpalobi, who has a background in for-profit fundraising, says he assembled a team of experts to launch a program that met the specific needs of children in the community.
“We brought on the director of education of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and then we started to partner with other people in education to make sure we’re meeting the state requirements,” Okpalobi says.
Developing a comprehensive curriculum meant the former basketball coach needed to examine other successful after-school programs. He researched LA’s Best and OSU Life’s Sports to formulate a program that focused on the areas that would benefit the enrollees. He birthed DIBIA DREAM Academy by implementing the most successful strategies from various programs, but with an understanding, his team was going to do it their way Okpalobi says.
“I started looking into education and saw they were taking away arts and P.E…. all these classes that taught life skills,” Okpalobi says. “We wanted to offer after-school programming, Saturday STEM programming, scholarships for college, and scholarships for kids to go to Africa.”
Okpalobi and his team, consisting of 22 part-time staff members, met with professors in the education department at the University of Miami to design a curriculum for children whose reading levels were well below the state standard. The program caters to students with behavioral problems and children in homeless shelters with the mission to raise their academic performance, while “expanding their minds through STEM.”
DREAM Academy partners with STEM NOLA and local science teachers to offer a science-based curriculum that is “relevant and cool” to the kids. The scholars, or enrollees in the DREAM Academy, engage in lab work such as dissecting sheep hearts and then building mechanical hearts.
They also dissect lungs and then build functional lungs. DREAM Academy even incorporates engineering by challenging the kids to build stop lights, model cars they can race, construct hover crafts and boats. The goal is to make sure they have something tangible to take home.
“We don’t believe everyone will be a scientist or engineer, but they’ll think differently and critically about the things they do, and if they do that, that will help them along the path to becoming a successful adult,” Okpalobi says.
During the summer months, the kids learn sports development and financial literacy. The component teaches them how to manage life more holistically. Many of the kids don’t know how to express their emotions or control their emotions. Okpalobi says the additional programming gives them the skills they need to overcome those challenges outside of the classroom.
“Many our kids live in an environment where it’s not safe. They aren’t eating at or are home being raised by younger siblings with no parents around,” Okpalobi says. As President and CEO of DIBIA DREAM Inc., Okpalobi created Dreams Home Initiative to provide kids with food on the weekends. Every Thursday, each scholar is given a “Dream Pack,” or reusable bag filled with 32 items, so they have food while they are away from school.
“A lot of the teachers will say ‘This kid is a bad child,’ but a lot of it is they haven’t eaten all weekend, and they don’t know how to express that,” Okpalobi says.
To date Dream Academy has impacted more than 2,200 kids in the program and 77% of the scholars have made progress toward their academic goals. School attendance is mandatory for kids who want to participate, and the requirement has resulted in a 90% improvement in school attendance.
DREAM Academy is a school-based site making it accessible for kids who want to attend. The participating schools are Eneida Massas Hartner Elementary School, Beacon College Prep in Liberty City, Jessie J. McCrary Jr. Elementary School, Kipp Central Academy in New Orleans, and Cutler Bay Middle School in South Miami-Dade County.
Scholars take several field trips throughout the year, and this past February the kids were treated to a screening of Marvel’s “Black Panther.” Now with the launch of STEM Saturdays, the scholars have an even greater incentive to perform well in school Okpalobi says.
“Between STEM NOLA and our actual staff we have great projects and great people who have taken the time to make sure it’s fun for kids, and they’re engaged,”Okpalobi says. “We are blessed to help kids and provide them with opportunities to win in life.”
About Brandon Okpalobi
Brandon Okpalobi’s journey from the lively streets of New Orleans to becoming the founder, president and CEO of DIBIA Athletic Development and Dibia DREAM, Inc., is remarkable unto itself. He is a first germination Nigerian-American. Even more powerful than Brandon’s own story is how DIBIA has grown from its beginnings as a summer camp to its comprehensive scope that helps at-risk African-American urban youth beat the odds, realize their potential and achieve their dreams thorough Dibia DREAM.
Selfless, determined, disciplined, and ambitious are all words that aptly describe the Founder and CEO of DIBIA Athletic Development, Brandon Azuka DIBIA Okpalobi. During his time in Miami, Brandon has made significant contributions to the local community, through business and community service. More impressive than his accomplishments on paper are his wonderful character traits. He has selflessly taken an active role in motivating today’s youth through both actions and words to live their best life, and be their best selves, while honoring God.
He leaves a lasting impression on those with whom he comes in contact with. Brandon devotes his time to organizations such as 100 Black Men of South Florida, Breakthrough Miami, Beacon Council New Leadership Taskforce, and is the past President of the Young Professional Network (YPN) Miami.
The mantra, “To lead is to serve” very well describes Brandon as he routinely proves his effective leadership ability through community service and training.
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When and why did you start Dibia DREAM?
I started DREAM on October 6, 2014. This is after noticing that we were not impacting enough youth who ‘looked like me’ with my for-profit business, DIBIA Athletic Development. I was determined to really change the narrative and began taking a deeper look into the education disparity that exists between groups. I quickly noticed that there were not many quality OST (Out of School Time) programs available for youth in communities predominantly populated by minority groups. Also, the increase in youth gun violence and other violent behaviors made me really think about how to create the change that was desperately needed. Being well traveled, I noticed that this problem wasn’t just an American problem; rather it is a global issue. This discovery has led me to establish programming in Bermuda as well as begin talks to expand to Columbia, South Africa and Nigeria.
On a more personal note, in the second grade, I was just like the kids that I currently serve. I see myself in them today. As a child, my high energy was focused in the wrong areas and that caused me to get in trouble often. I would earn all A’s in my classwork but also earn F’s in conduct. Eventually I was kicked out of second grade and sent to a creative arts school where they channeled my negative energy into art. By pushing me toward artistic expression, my thought process changed. I became an entrepreneur in the 3rd grade. I started a clothing business where I sketched and used acrylic paint on shirts and sold them. A couple of years later, when I was in the 5th grade, I had a mentor say to me, “Brandon, you are extremely intelligent and can be anything you want when you grow up, but this behavior and acting out must stop today.” From that day on in Ms. Foleys class, I changed my behavior. With DREAM, I am able to bring educational opportunities to youth in underserved communities. I can also serve as a mentor to kids like Mrs. Foley was to me in order to help them win at life.
What was your organization’s biggest triumph of the past year?
As a young organization, we have to work double time to be recognized as a viable organization worthy of support from funders, partners, and the community.
At DREAM, we pride ourselves on providing optimal quality programs to youth and their families. So, in partnership with our DREAM Academy site Eneida M. Hartner Elementary School, it was an honor to be named the ‘2017 Best After School Program’ by the Miami-Dade Coalition for Community Education.
What new initiatives have been started since you started?
This year alone DREAM has launched the following three new initiatives to impact youth: Carrying DREAMS Home Initiative, STEM Saturdays, and NIKE Running Club.
Carrying DREAMs Home Initiative: To combat childhood hunger, DREAM partnered with Hyatt Regency New Orleans to provide “DREAMPaks” to youth participating in Dream Academy. DREAMPaks included non-perishable foods and healthy snacks. They were taken home at the end of each week and then were re-filled the following week to make sure youth and their families had nourishment through the weekend.
STEM Saturdays: STEM Saturdays are monthly, city-wide, family-oriented, and community-based academic events where students and parents can attend and learn together. By transforming community centers into “Incubators of Excellence”, the goal is to engage and expose youth and their families to STEM-based activities.
Nike Running Club: Nike Running Club is one of the cornerstones of our health & wellness initiative named DREAM Active. This competitive, nationally recognized program allows our scholars and Dream Academy youth participants to develop athletically with a strong focus on individual training, team sports and sportsmanship.
As head of this organization, what goals do you have for it next year?
As the head of DREAM, my focus is to ensure the sustainability of the growing non-profit organization so that we can continue to do the work that is needed to achieve our mission. This entails me setting goals to increase revenue, funding, partnerships and sponsorships. While these things remain a top priority, another critical goal to our success next year is to bring on 3-4 key staff members to manage our growth. We are in current talks to expand from 3 Dream Academy after school sites to 6 sites as early as this fall. This includes expansion to Bermuda, which poses a different focus as an international expansion. Lastly, with more STEM Saturday dates confirmed each month, we will essentially double the number of students in all programs to increase our impact.
Can you share a short story about an incident or event that illustrates the impact you believe your organization is having on your local community or the region?
In the 21st century, one of America’s greatest challenges is motivating, educating, and training a technical workforce to ensure that we can compete and thrive globally. DREAM offers many programs to combat this issue and change the narrative in our community. STEM Saturdays is one initiative that is making a significant difference by providing a safe place for at-risk youth and their families to engage in impactful STEAM-based activities on the weekends.
We launched STEM Saturdays last year to increase community volunteerism and to help youth learn about opportunities in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. Noticing the lack of women of color in STEM fields, DREAM partnered with Honey Shine, a mentoring and empowerment organization for girls that focuses on young women of color. Together, we’ve hosted over 100 girls at STEM Saturdays where they dissected actual hearts and also constructed mechanical hearts. The girls received custom lab coats, gloves and goggles to complete their projects, which were taken home at the end of the day.
Since then, my staff and I have received numerous text messages and phone calls from parents saying that “this was the best workshop their child attended.” I specifically recall a young girl saying to me “Mr. Brandon, I feel like a doctor!” The learning continues because parents are saying, “We are having STEM conversations at home and our daughter is explaining her project.”
These are the types of hands-on experiments and project development interactions only made possible with our unique learning lesson. In this way, we hope to continue to change the narrative.
~ By Patrice Worthy