A hundred teens are about to have the time of their lives thanks to radio talk show host and comedian, Steve Harvey, and Walt Disney World. Befittingly taking place during the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend, a group of mostly African American high school students have been selected to participate in Disney’s Dreamers Academy. They’re coming from across the country to participate in interactive workshops, meet High School Musical star, Monique Coleman, and have an intimate behind the scenes look at both the business and creative aspects of the famous theme park.

Pontiac, MI native, Ariel Garner, 15, is just one of the amazing teens chosen by Harvey and his panel of judges. Both of Ariel’s parents died of AIDS before her third birthday. Raised by her aunt, Ariel frequently talks to her friends about the dangers of HIV/AIDS. “So many things are going around these days and a lot of kids today don’t care or don’t know,” she says. “We learn about HIV and AIDS in Health class but most [students] have never met someone who experienced it firsthand.” Ariel hopes to one day help others as a pediatrician, but being involved with her school’s drama club has also jumpstarted her acting bug. Either way, she knows the experience at Disney’s Dreamers Academy will encourage her to make her hopes a reality.

Essence.com recently sat down with Steve Harvey to discuss this partnership with Walt Disney World, how he choose students like Ariel and why he feels there’s nothing more important than a dream fulfilled.

Essence.com: How did you get involved with Disney’s Dreamers Academy?
Steve Harvey:
I’d been doing some business with Disney’s Vacation Club when they heard about my mentoring program. I used to mentor African American boys across the country. Now that I’m at WBLS in New York City, I invite a group of boys from different schools every Wednesday to sit and have lunch with me. We spend about 3 hours just talking about how to be successful in life. Disney heard about this and said, ‘Wow, we’re also trying to come up with a mentoring program.’ So they asked if I would partner with them on the Disney Dreamers Academy.

Essence.com: Why are you mentoring just boys?
Because that’s where I believe the problem lies. I have daughters and I haven’t seen too many boys that I want to see them bring home. If we don’t start developing better boys, our women won’t have great choices to choose from. We have more men of college age institutionalized in prisons than we do in colleges, and that’s wrong. So if we don’t straighten these boys out, our family structure will continue to suffer. The women in our race can’t do any more then they have already done.

Essence.com: How did you get so many kids involved in the Dreamers Academy?
I convinced Disney to take 100 kids from across the country. These kids emailed letters to my web site and then we formed a committee of about 20 people to read 3,000 letters, judge and select the 100 kids who are going to Orlando.

Essence.com: Who was on your judging committee?
Besides myself, I had people like Terrence J from 106 & Park, officials from the Boys and Girls club of Chicago, some of the top educators in Detroit, and Xiomara Wiley, Vice President of Multicultural Marketing for Disney, to name a few.

Essence.com: What did you look for when selecting the participants?
We picked kids who had some real sad stories, and some kids who were simply in need. One girl I picked said she has no idea how to dream. Her life is so distraught. She was just hoping she might get down to Disney and talk to the other kids so they might give her something to dream about.

Essence.com: Are you bringing your family with you this weekend?
I will be at all of the ceremonies and conferences. I am appearing at everything and I’m making my kids go with me. My wife, Marjorie and I have 7 kids between us. My kids have a very blessed life and I want them to come down so that they can see that.

Essence.com: What difference do you think this experience is going to have on the students who were selected?
I think it will make a big difference. I often say something that I’m always shot down for but I’m not going to stop saying it: There is nothing in a child’s life that is greater than their dream, not even their education. But when you say that, educators frown on you. Think about it…it’s the dreams that make a child even want to go to school. The reason we have such a high dropout rate is because kids are not taught to dream. I have talked to educators from Los Angeles to New York. If they would erase what they call study hall, which is a free period, and make it a requirement where kids just come to class to talk about their dreams and then we show them how to accomplish them, we could alleviate the dropout rate. Dreams give children hope and aspirations. Without that, they won’t see a future for themselves.

Essence.com: This seems really important to you.
We don’t have enough people in our communities telling young Black kids how to accomplish their dreams. If you’re not in the right environment, you don’t have the best of parents, you don’t go to the right school or hang with the right friends, you will never get close to seeing your dreams come true. But if we develop a generation of dreamers, then you have people who think they can do anything, you’ve created a generation who will experience success.

Essence.com: What did you dream of when you were a kid?
Being a comedian has been one of my life-long dreams. I just had no idea how to get there. I knew I wanted to be on TV and I wanted to be funny, but no one in my neighborhood was a comedian or on TV. So I had to bury that dream. But I’ve been able to live my dream because God has allowed it. I want to show young people you can be anything you want to be if you’re gifted, passionate and have faith.

Essence.com: What are you looking forward to the most this coming weekend?
I think it’s going to be big when they all meet each other. We will have so many young people around the country forever connected. These guys may end up in business together years down the road. You never know.

Are you helping youth in your community like Steve Harvey? Share your story below.


Photo Credit: Jeff Neira/Walt Disney Parks and Resorts