Derrell Frazier poses with NBA commissioner Adam Silver at a Morgan State University event. (Courtesy photo)

Derrell Frazier, 22, was born with a lot of reasons to feel hopeless and powerless.

He was born to a father who went to prison when he was just two years old and a mother who was addicted to drugs and unable to care for her children. Frazier lived with his grandmother on the east side of Baltimore, along with his three other siblings. He attended a Title 1 city school that wasn’t making the grade.

Frazier says that he saw a lot of negativity in his life. Today, however, he is in his junior year at Morgan State University where he is studying pre-law. He was the first in his family to graduate high school. He says the U.S. Dream Academy helped turn his life around.

The Dream Academy is an after school and mentorship program that aims to keep at-risk kids on the right track.

“The goals for the U.S. Dream Academy are threefold: skill building, character building and dream building,” said C. Diane Wallace Booker, the group’s executive director. “We really want to help our young people grow into ethical leaders.”

“It gave us opportunities that a lot of us never even thought to do,” Frazier said. “Recreation, art, enrichment.”

He said that the academy kept him off the streets and out of trouble. “It was kind of like a home away from home.”

“A lot of my older relatives didn’t finish school,” he said. That meant that they weren’t always able to help him if he was struggling with homework. He said that the adults in the program worked hard to find creative ways to teach him and the other kids. They helped them learn instead of just lecturing. “You have old heads that tell you ‘this is what you need to do.’ They don’t even help you.”

Mentorship is a major tenet of the program. Frazier’s mentor was a Johns Hopkins student named Nathan Maust.

“My father wasn’t in my life,” he said. “He gave me a lot of advice. A lot of questions that you would have for someone who was older.”

It wasn’t all work, either. The two also had fun together. They did things like playing sports and going ice skating. “I had fun,” Frazier said. “I’m happy that I got to meet him.”

Wallace Booker said that the group is always looking for adults to mentor Dream Academy participants, especially during January which is National Mentoring month.

“What we really care about is that there are positive adults. Mentors can come from all walks of life,” she said. She said some mentors commit to coming in every week, some bi-weekly and others periodically for certain programs.

As for Frazier, he already has plans to be a mentor himself. He says he knows so many young people his age who are taxed with taking care of a house full of younger siblings and relatives. He said he wants them to know that their dreams are important – and achievable – too.

“I used to be ashamed to tell my story,” he said. “I didn’t want to tell anybody where I was from. But my story is my testimony.”

“Everybody was put on this earth for a reason. You have a purpose to fulfill. You have to figure out what makes you happy in life.”

Learn more about the U.S. Dream Academy, including how to participate, by going to www.usdreamacademy.org