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Charlottesville nonprofit helps low-income families build their dreams with a little cash, a little knowhow and a lot of care

Kamella Yelder wanted to hear three words: “I see you.”

Working full-time and raising four kids, ages 10, 8, 6 and 4, Yelder was stretched thin. She didn’t know how to balance it all: between her children’s homework, parent-teacher conferences and appointments and figuring out what direction she wanted to take her own career, maintaining her own grades in an entrepreneur class, getting her driver’s license reinstated and paying rent.

She had heard about a program supporting mothers and children through City of Promise, a Charlottesville nonprofit organization dedicated to helping families become more self-sufficient. So, in the fall, Yelder applied for its Dreambuilders program.

When she heard she had been accepted into the 19-week City of Promise program focused on providing families with an array of resources and support, Yelder said she heard the words she had been waiting for: “We know it’s a lot to be a mom, we’ll take care of you.”

Through Dreambuilders, she said she not only found a way to achieve some balance in her life, but also found community in a group of women facing the same balancing act.

“It provided me with a safe space,” Yelder told The Daily Progress. “I found a support system that helped keep me going when I got to a really dark place.”

After a little more than two years, Dreambuilders is now preparing for its seventh cohort, which will begin March 11 with 10 families. Just as Yelder did, parents will attend classes, sessions and conversations on a variety of subjects including personal finance, housing, nutrition, bullying, emotional support, health and parent-teacher etiquette.

“The population that we’re working with, we need to provide them with as many resources and opportunities as we can,” City of Promise’s family empowerment coach Dawn Lawson told The Daily Progress. “We just want to provide them with all the tools to support themselves.”

One such tool that all Dreambuilders are provided: $1,500.

Raised through private donations, the money is turned over to those in the Dreambuilders program to use as they see fit.

“Everyone’s worried about, ‘Well, what if they just buy dumb stuff?’ And I’m like, ‘Look, I advocate for sort of the ability to self-actualize,’” City of Promise Executive Director Price Thomas told The Daily Progress. “The argument for this program was, if we’re going to do all of this education, if we’re going to do all of this theorizing and workshopping, really, it’s not that useful if you don’t have the resources to execute it.”

The funds are kept in an account with City of Promise for participants to access whenever. With her $1,500, Yelder managed to pay part of her rent, groceries, the fee to reinstate her license and the $250 charge to secure a business license.

She started a new position at Sam’s Club toward the end of her time at Dreambuilders in the fall, but is looking to set out on her own entrepreneurial journey. Already running a candied fruit business, Yelder recently obtained a business license to operate an escape room in Harrisonburg.

Her ideas don’t stop there. Yelder is working on a future project, “Imagination Oasis,” a creative space for children where they can express themselves and play without electronic devices.

Yelder said that when her mother died when she was just 19, she was grateful for the world her mother had provided her but frightened because she had not had enough time to learn from her mother how to manage that world.

“I want to be able to leave something behind for my kids, but also give them the tools to manage it and keep it going,” she said.

Another component of Dreambuilders is self-care. Parents often sacrifice personal time and needs to focus on their children, though this can eventually be damaging for the family as even parents have their limitations, said Lawson.

“A huge part of your ability to parent is being regulated yourself. Like feeling like you’re at least a semi-put-together human being, which your children will erode at constantly,” said Thomas.

Through weekly required meetings with Lawson, parents identify personal, professional or family goals and, then, a strategy to turn those goals into a reality — to build their dreams. These objectives can range from creating a household budget, fostering a deeper connection with one’s child or obtaining a professional license.

Ashley Banks, a single mother of two young daughters, said she was able to re-enroll at Piedmont Virginia Community College during her time in Dreambuilders. She graduated from PVCC in December with a licensed practical nursing degree and is now continuing her education to become a registered nurse.

“I was able to sit down and make some short-term and long-term goals while in the program, and I have been gradually checking things off my list,” Banks told The Daily Progress in an email. “It gave me an opportunity to reflect on myself and my parenting. I am very proud that I was able to be a part of such a program.”

Based on literature from the National Center for Families Learning, Dreambuilders cultivates a family’s connectivity through what is called PACT time. A majority of those in the program are low-income, single parents working full-time. “Parent and child together” time allows families to dedicate time to one another, engaging in activities from bowling, yoga or a trip to Massanutten Resort organized by City of Promise.

“The parents come in on their own journey with their own strengths and challenges,” said Lawson. “I’ve seen them gain some confidence and practice what they’ve been taught about self-care to use that to reach their goals. I love to see them doing things as a family.”

One of the PACT sessions that Yelder and her children attended involved a personal chef instructing the family on how to cook different child-friendly recipes. They were also given several board games and activities to bring home to play together.

“Dreambuilders focused on building our family unity,” said Yelder. “It helped me to be more hands-on and intentional at home as well.”

Since its start in fall 2021, Dreambuilders has graduated six cohorts, two each year. Applicants must fill out an online form before coming to the City of Promise house in Charlottesville’s 10th & Page neighborhood for an interview with Lawson.

One eligibility requirement for Dreambuilders is residency in the Charlottesville City Schools division, according to Lawson. This condition allows the Dreambuilders initiative to fit in seamlessly with the other pieces of City of Promise’s mission.

With two other programs — LaunchPad Initiative and Pathway Coaching — built around supporting children from low-income families in their personal development and educational pursuits, Thomas said City of Promise is providing the resources not just to make life better for parents and children today but generations to come.

“All we’re doing [as parents] is remaking versions of what we are introduced to,” said Thomas. “So we want to make sure that these parents are able to create and sustain these environments for their kids such that these kids, when they are the adults, will do that for their kids. And so the story goes.”


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