After almost a decade, the dream of nine Baltimore City teens to create a safe haven for youth has come true. The grand opening of The Dream House was held on May 8, marking an end to the tedious and tiresome renovation efforts and the beginning of constructive afterschool activities for elementary, middle and high school students in a familiar environment.
Not your ordinary youth center, The Dream House is run by youth, who call themselves the Youth Dreamers, and focuses on curbing teen violence.
“We want a youth center where the youth are decision-makers,” said Kristina Berdan, the teacher director of the Youth Dreamers. “What’s really important for us is to have adult allies so those goals can come to fruition.”
The colorful exterior of the three-story house barely scratches the surface of the youth-friendly atmosphere the teens and adult allies worked to create on the inside. With a conference room, a cyber café and a quiet area for reading and games, every corner of the house is used purposefully.
“It’s supposed to feel like a home; it’s not supposed to feel like an institution,” Berdan said.
In 2001, nine students from the Stadium School noticed the problems youth were having after school and decided to open a youth center to give teens something positive to do. They sought adult assistance with fundraising and letter-writing campaigns to raise money for a home for the youth center.
“Senator Barbara Mikulski donated $70,000 and she came and presented it,” Berdan said.
While looking for other funds, the teens busied themselves with finding a home for the youth center and settled on 1430 Carswell St., a former parsonage owned by the Homestead United Methodist Church.
The Youth Dreamers then had to change the zoning of the house from residential to multi-purpose. While most neighbors in the area signed the petition that made the teens’ Dream House a reality, some neighbors opposed the house at the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals, fearing that a youth center would bring violence and noise to the neighborhood. However, the zoning passed and the Youth Dreamers proceeded with schoolwide fundraising events and grant writing, which raised $324,000 for renovations.
“We bought the house in 2004 and it took three years to do all the renovations,” Berdan said. “This could not have been done without the time and talent of so many people.”
University of Maryland law students helped with the zoning procedures and in making the Youth Dreamers a nonprofit organization; State Farm Insurance has been a major funding contributor; and Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse became the pro bono general contractor for the house.
But even before the house was built, when the Youth Dreamers worked out of the Stadium School, they were recognized for their dedication to their mission. In 2002, they won the Youth Group of the Year Award, followed by the Angels in the Classroom Award in 2003 and several other recognitions.
“I’ve never belonged to a youth club before,” said Keyani Kenney, 15. “This is the first time I’ve done something like this before. I first heard of the Youth Dreamers when I was in sixth grade. I learned their history and it really grew on me.”
Through writing grants and canvassing neighborhoods to gain community support for The Dream House, Kenney said her writing and public speaking skills have improved. She has been a Youth Dreamer for five years and is now a supervisor of the younger students who visit The Dream House.
“The older kids look out for the younger kids,” Berdan said.
About 100 other students are actively involved with the Youth Dreamers and their Dream House.
Besides programs for youth, The Dream House will also be open to adults as a community center.
“We’re going to teach elderly people how to use the computers in the cyber café,” Kenny said.
The house will be open during the day for meetings, GED programs and support for grandparents.
“We need to do a lot more marketing for what we can use the center for,” Berdan said.
The Youth Dreamers are open for suggestions on how to best use The Dream House to benefit the community, but, for now, they are celebrating the success of their hard work to make their dream come true.
“I still can’t believe it,” Berdan said. “I’m in total shock.”