TCU students volunteer with nonprofit to eliminate ‘dream deserts’

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Low-income neighborhoods lacking access to fresh fruit, vegetables and other whole foods important to a young child’s health are often called “food deserts.”

These communities can also lack access to educational and extracurricular opportunities, another crucial element of a child’s success.

Dream Outside the Box, a national nonprofit headquartered in Fort Worth, dubbed these neighborhoods “dream deserts.” A group of TCU students works with the organization to bring more dreams to the children of Como Community Center.

At the neighborhood school, Como Elementary, 89 percent of the students at the district’s assigned elementary school are considered “economically disadvantaged,” according to the 2015-2016 school report card from the Texas Education Agency.

The school only met 1 of 4 performance indexes on the report card and received an accountability rating of “improvement required.”

A child poses for a photo during the program.
A child poses for a photo during the program (Ryder Buttry/TCU360).

The students of TCU’s chapter of Dream Outside the Box meet at the center every Wednesday evening to lead an after-school program focusing on a particular field of study.

A professor or student from the major speaks about their industry and the job opportunities within it. Then, students participate in a hands-on activity relating to the line of the work.

Blake Bengtson became president of the TCU chapter this January and is already trying to introduce new programs such as fashion merchandising activities.

“We were experimenting with it [fashion merchandising activity] to see how successful it could be,” Bengtson said. “Since the national office is in Fort Worth, we get the benefit of being a chapter who works with a lot of new ideas before they get rolled out to other campuses.”

A student ties a bracelet on a volunteer during the fashion merchandising programming.
A child ties a bracelet on a volunteer during the fashion merchandising programming (Ryder Buttry/TCu360).

Throughout each semester, the TCU students said they see the kids’ passions and dreams evolve and flourish.

“[My] favorite part is at the end of the semester when you’re talking to a kid who at the beginning of the semester had no idea what they wanted to do, but at the end of the semester they’re constantly giving you the same answer on a week in and week out basis,” Bengtson said.

Sophomore biology major Eli Reynolds said he loves seeing the kids’ energy focused in on the new fields they’re exposed to through the program.

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A girl enjoys pizza after the day’s activity is finished (Ryder Buttry/TCU360).

“The kids have so much energy,” Reynolds said. “It’s just cool to see once that energy is kind of focused in on a passion. It’s really cool to see them … get excited about things they don’t normally see.”

The program doesn’t just benefit the younger children, though. Bengtson said volunteering with the program has made him realize how sheltered he was in his own community growing up.

“Having that experience of being exposed to a background other than my own and realizing that it’s not necessarily better or worse, it’s just different,” Bengtson said. “I think that’s a huge learning experience for me, personally.”

Students who want to get involved can email blake.bengtson@tcu.edu or learn more here.