The story of DreamWakers, a 30-state nonprofit that connects disadvantaged classrooms with career speakers, began in Charlottesville with a box of pizza and two smartphones.
Co-founders Monica Gray Logothetis and Annie Medaglia were hanging out one night during their time together at the University of Virginia and realized that they could harness free internet resources to try to help students in poor rural and urban school districts.
Using Skype and Google Hangout, DreamWakers acts as a liaison between corporate executives who want to give back and teachers who want to give their students an extra jolt of inspiration.
DreamWakers vets applications from teachers and potential speakers then hooks up a classroom with a speaker based on the teacher’s specifications. Much of the time, Gray Logothetis said, teachers “want a speaker who looks like their students and shares a background, but they also want them to be able to speak to the skills and the jobs of the future. It is incredibly powerful for the students to see someone who looks like them coming on the screen and serving as a role model.”
The nonprofit, which is aiming to expand to all 50 states and starting a corporate sponsorship program in the next year, hopes to solve a problem Medaglia and Gray Logothetis were thinking about before their inspiration struck.
“We were looking for ways to solve this, and the answer was right there on our phones,” Medaglia said. “We felt that the neediest schools were most likely to lack exposure to a diversity of speakers and the jobs that are out there.”
To get the expansion they want, Gray Logothetis said, the organization’s goal is to become totally self-sustaining.
“One of the ways we want to do that is to start a corporate partnership program, where corporations can apply to sponsor a flash chat,” she said.
The organization, which is now headquartered in New York, already has worked with companies such as Google, Nike, JP Morgan Chase, Whole Foods, Orvis, MTV and the White House.
DreamWakers focuses on schools where more than 50 percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch. That number has been growing in the last 10 years.
Valencia Angles, a 38-year veteran of the Tazewell County school system, said DreamWakers’ model solved a tricky problem for her rural, isolated community in Southwest Virginia.
“Tazewell County is a largely rural community that once was economically booming because of the coal fields,” she said. “It is difficult to find logistically appropriate enrichment activities for my students. The nearest university is two hours away. We are over five hours away from Richmond.”
According to The Washington Post, federal data from 2013 showed that more than half of students nationwide were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch in the 2012-13 school year.
In Albemarle County, documents show, the number of “disadvantaged” students climbed from 21 to 29 percent between 2005-06 and 2015-16. Seven of the county’s 16 elementary schools’ populations are more than 40 percent “disadvantaged,” the same document showed.
For Angles’ gifted students, the flash chat served as an emotional recharge and an education on how to navigate college and beyond.
“They learned about the importance of budgeting their time between studying and living in the college scene, but the biggest takeaway was to not be afraid to try new things and to change their minds,” she said. “We most certainly want another chat in the near future.”