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Overtown mentor sticks with group through senior year

Program began in 2004 with first graders

Chloe Herring | 8/7/2014, 9 a.m.

Eric Lewis, program director for a Miami mentoring program, is nostalgic. He recounts the moment he took on the role in 2004 for the I Have A Dream Foundation.

“I remember the first day I received the list of 50 kids. They were six and seven years old and I looked around the room and asked myself ‘What have I got myself into?’”

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Malik Williams

The I Have A Dream Foundation is a national organization founded in 1981 that provides long-term support to local groups of low-income children, called Dreamers, throughout their years in school. The program offers free academic services with the promise of a full tuition scholarship for college and currently serves almost 3,000 students in fourteen states and New Zealand.

Lewis started working in Overtown at Phillis Wheatley Elementary where he organized the entire first grade class, 52 students, into the program. Lewis said the idea was to keep the students out of trouble and together, but by 2007 the children were enrolled at twelve different schools.

The financial assistance offered through the program will help create first generation college students for many of the Dreamers’ families.

“Things don’t happen like this everyday for kids in my neighborhood,” said Malik Williams, a soon-to-be high school senior at Miami Beach Senior High.

Williams is one of 41 active Dreamers. Most of the students are nearing their last year of high school.

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Jamee Smith and her family

College freshman Jamee Smith is the exception. Smith attended summer program events with her younger sister, an original participant, until she was adopted into the Dreamer family when she permanently relocated to Miami in 2009.

Now Smith attends Florida State University. A year ahead of the other Dreamers, she set the bar high for the students following in her footsteps.

“She is like an older sister for all of us,” said Madeline Cruz, who will be a high school senior at Law Enforcement Academy in the fall. Cruz said Jamee’s recent graduation from Miami Beach Senior High was a big deal for all the Dreamers.

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Madeline Cruz

“It was exciting to know we’ll be going through the same process,” Cruz said.

For Smith, having 40 pairs of eyes on her was overwhelming at first.

“I felt I couldn’t mess up. I had to talk to Mr. Lewis because it was taking a toll,” Smith said.

But being in the I Have A Dream Foundation also meant she had a support system 40 members strong during one of the toughest years of her life. She lost three family members and her younger brother was jailed.

Since 2004 the students have endured great personal tragedy. Lewis said he sometimes feels involved in 41 “different soap operas.” One Dreamer struggles with cancer. A set of twins lost their father on Christmas day. Cruz was in middle school when her mother had a stroke.

“After school I would visit and it would take forever. Mr. Lewis would always check on me,” said Cruz. “That’s one thing I will never forget.”

The students in the program spoke highly of Lewis’ unwavering leadership. In a group of 41 teenagers, most of the kids see him as a second father. For those like Williams, whose father passed when he was young, Lewis serves as their only father figure.