The Young Dream Changers program in Houston, Texas only started two years ago, but it’s already a success. The small student program is part of the larger Community in Schools (CIS) organization in Houston’s Baytown area. CIS focuses on keeping kids in school. The Young Dream Changers program goes a step further, targeting high-risk kids with a history of truancy and expulsion, and exposed to negative influences such as gangs and drugs.
Chris Carmona, an attorney and co-chairman of the Young Republican National Federation, was involved from day one, when Young Dream Changers was just a pilot concept. The project started as a 10-week summer program aimed at providing at-risk kids with adult mentorship and community service opportunities.
The program kicked off with 20 middle school boys between the ages of 12 and 14. These students had to earn their way into the program by expressing commitment to the summer plan. Meanwhile, adults like Chris offered practical advice and participated in community engagement.
“We want to give these kids some value,” Carmona explained. “We offer things like grooming tips and how to do an interview. We do this on top of the service projects, plus regular teamwork or trust-building exercises.”
“It’s not just fluff,” he stressed. “We want to teach these kids what to do in real life situations. We want it to be fun but also serious. That way these kids know they have alternatives.”
Young Dream Changers visit Mountbatten Senior Assisted Living Facility. | Photo: Young Dream Changers Facebook
Using his background as a legal expert, Carmona talked with the group about a crucial life skill: how to talk to the police.
“It happened shortly after the Sandra Bland video, which is kind of an emotional thing,” explained Carmona, referring to an incident earlier this summer caught on a police dashboard camera. A Texas state trooper arrested Bland, an African-American woman, after a minor traffic violation escalated into an assault on the officer. Bland committed suicide in jail.
“As an attorney and as someone who has kids, talking about how to keep things from escalating, its important and it hit home for people,” Carmona said.
Describing how to strike the right balance in mentorship, Carmona says he takes care not to be “preachy.”
“You aren’t their parents,” he said. “You are their friend, guiding in them in the right decisions.”
For at-risk kids, Carmona focuses on teaching attitudes. He says that mentorship is an important element that shows students they are more than just a person going through a school system.
Carmona stressed the importance of pride and ownership. “We want them to have purpose and promise by investing in them,” Carmona explained. “When you want them to do better, they respond by wanting you to be proud of them. Then we build on that.”
Programs that focus on boys who need to overcome serious risks need a strong male presence, which is why Carmona became involved in Young Dream Changers. “I’m always trying to do things with kids,” he said. “There has always been some time of youth activity I’m working on.” Previously, he worked with programs like youth hospitals and the YMCA.
“We want them to have purpose and promise by investing in them”
Carmona’s devotion to these programs comes from his own background. “It’s based on my own history, and seeing that there weren’t that many people willing to do this when I was growing up,” he said. “There were never enough people attaching themselves to troubled youth, particularly young men.”
Carmona says Young Dream Changers requested his presence, and that the organization wanted “someone with a similar experience. Someone who is involved in the community and politics and law.”
When it comes to politics, however, Carmona admits he is a local anomaly. “I’m the only Republican in a field of Democrats doing this kind of program,” he said. And apparently, the issue does come up. “You don’t be too political with these kids, but a lot of political issues have an effect on them,” Carmona explained. “Then you can make it a teachable moment. You are teaching them your point of view and you get to see how it resonates with them.”
After becoming known as the Republican in the group, some of the kids actually sought Carmona out for advice. “A lot of these kids have very entrepreneurial minds,” he said. “They have good ideas about how they would build their business. When we are discussing this, they ask things like, ‘why does the government want to mandate or restrict all these things?’ which is when I can talk about smaller government.”
Carmona argues that many of the program’s goals dovetail with conservatism and individual responsibility. “For a party that always stands on the principles of hand-ups not handouts, and individual responsibility, they go hand-in-hand.”
He added: “We want to teach these kids that you don’t have to be dependent on the government when you have neighbors and community that can show you there are other successful alternatives.”
“We want to free them from this slavery mentality where you are beholden to the government,” Carmona continued. “Show them the choices that they have and the ability to think on their own without asking for permission from a higher organization… Then the values of the Republican Party shine through.”
For his part, Carmona wants to see more Republicans join him. “The current state of kids [and] young adults is lacking parental involvement,” he said. “If you don’t take a part in solving it, you are contributing to the downfall of it.”
Young Dream Changers day at Chevron Phillips. | Photo: Young Dream Changers Facebook
He says all people need to do is be a resource to a child. “Be an extra body, a voice, or an ear for those who will make wrong decisions if they don’t have anybody to lean on,” he said.
Carmona calls on Young Republicans in particular who one day aspire to run for office. “Compelling causes is what we live about,” he said. “It’s not enough that we want to win, but to be worthy of winning. Leadership is when you embody the community you want to represent. Are you embodying the ideals of the people around you? Do you have skin in the game? Do you invest of your time? Are you becoming worthy of winning, not just for elections, but winning the hearts and minds of the people you promised to represent and bring to a brighter future to?”
“It doesn’t matter if you are a candidate or a block walker,” Carmona explained. “You are selling a brand, and it is upheld by servant leadership.”
The Young Dream Changers is just one example of an organization having a great and good impact on its community. Since the program began, many of the kids have completely cut ties with gang culture. In fact, the program has had to add more qualifiers for kids to stay involved or join. Now students need to maintain past commitments and add more community service so they can stay in the program.
Carmona encourages others to get involved in programs like the Young Dream Changers. “The takeaway for Republicans young or old: get involved, stay involved, to protect our communities and make sure we are again servant leaders,” he said.
Katrina Jorgensen is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter .