Jordan Peel came to Dream Center Peoria to play, but stayed to help.
And the 22-year-old plans to stick around.
Six years ago, Peel came at the invitation of Robbie Criss, long a leader at Dream Center Peoria.
“He’s like an uncle to me,” Peel says.
A basketball fanatic, Peel quickly took to the gym at Dream Center Peoria. But he also enjoyed other programs, especially the arts classes. The more he participated, the more his leadership developed.
So from there, for the past two years he worked at the Project 309 Summer Camp as counselor for 6- to 9-year-olds. But he most likes to lend a hand with Mission Peoria, the annual, week-long community-service outreach that brings kids from around the country to some of Peoria’s neediest areas.
“It’s a great experience,” Peel says. “I think that everybody in the city should do it at least once. You get close to people in the community, and you get closer spiritually to God.
Though Peel is getting a start in the workforce, he doesn’t plan to leave Dream Center Peoria. He finds it too important -- and too much fun
“I’ll help it anyway I can,” he says
What Dream Center Peoria means to me: “It’s a great starting ground to begin careers, for the work background and education background.”
Zavon Knox didn’t want to give Dream Center Peoria a chance.
Three years ago, Zavon (now 14) came out to Metro Kids, the Bible-based activities program at Taft Homes. But Zavon’s goal wasn’t fellowship or fun, but mischief.
“It was bad, but it turned out good,” he says with a knowing grin.
As Zavon clowned around, Metro Kids volunteers realized other youths would follow his lead.
“They said I was a leader,” Zavon says. “So, they asked me to bring more kids.”
Given a sense of responsibility, Zavon took his job seriously.
“The other kids, when (Metro Kids staff) said, ‘Be quiet,’ they wouldn’t be quiet,” he says. “But if I said, ‘Be quiet,’ they’d be quiet.”
Zavon has brought six youths into Project 309, the after-school tutoring and activities program he has come to love.
“It’s very educational and very fun,” he says. “They teach you stuff you didn’t know about God. They tell you stories that make you want to believe in God.”
His favorite story? “Jonah gets eaten by a big fish -- I like that one. It teaches you not to be naughty.”
What Dream Center Peoria means to me: “When you come here, you learn about God. And you learn about being thankful and careful. It makes you want to change to be a different person.”
Doug Orwig wanted to teach computers, but ended up helping parents.
Along the way, he discovered a wonderful lesson that he hopes to share with others: youth ministry is in your God-given skills.
Orwig, 51, teaches computer-operations classes at the college level. Two years ago, as a regular at Riverside Community Church, he wondered if he could help at Dream Center Peoria. He immediately found a spot introducing a weekly class to computer basics.
Before the first meeting with adult students, he’d purchased inexpensive spiral notebooks and pens, which he handed out to the class. One student, a mom of a high school teen, marveled at the gift, grasping the notebook in gratitude. For the class, she had no extra money for a notebook, so she’d borrowed one from her daughter’s book bag; they’d have to share. But with one of her one of her own, she could return her daughter’s notebook.
“Wow,” Orwig told himself. “I wasn’t prepared for that. These people are at ground zero.”
So, he decided to lift them up. He taught them how to write resumes for job searches and create spreadsheets for household budgets. But he also gave them insight in how to help their kids.
“I showed them how to find good information to help their kids with homework,” he says. “They suddenly felt, ‘I can be a good parent. I can do something.’ I boosted their confidence.”
Orwig teaches at Dream Center Peoria an hour a week. He wonders if others realize how much of a difference they could make by simply sharing their gifts.
“I think I’m making a contribution to some lives,” he says quietly. “It boggles my brain: how many people could spare an hour a week?”
What does Dream Center Peoria mean to me: “Hope. The people who come are hoping they’ll get a second chance.”
One special Christmas Eve, Amanda McKay found hope at Dream Center Peoria.
McKay, now 36, was raised in Decatur amid drug addiction and law-breaking. Her childhood was an overturned normal.
“I grew up with police kicking in our door,” she says.
As an adult, McKay moved drugs and burgled drug houses, crimes that landed her two prison sentences, the last a 10-year jolt. As her released date neared, and vowing to herself never to return to prison, she contacted Dream Center Peoria for a new chance at life.
On Dec. 24, 2015, McKay went from incarceration to The Village, Dream Center Peoria’s transitional-housing program. She took computer classes and underwent counseling, a job at the front desk.
“I was grateful for that,” she says.
Her and life stabilized, she now lives in a rental home. She takes classes at Illinois Central College, aiming to one day become a caseworker for Dream Center Peoria. For now, she volunteers there, often at the Hope Store.
“I would do anything for them,” she says. “And I want to help people, because there was no one to help me as a kid. Nobody cared.”
With Dream Center Peoria behind her, McKay sees boundless hope.
“My life isn’t perfect,” she says. “I still struggle with things. There are still things the devil tells me, like I’ll never do anything right, so why bother.
“So, I go to God. I’m working every day to change.”
What Dream Center Peoria means to me: “Everything. It’s my whole life. I love being here. When you’re here, you’re in the presence of God.”
Kristy Schofield swore she’d never again work for a social-service agency.
Then Dream Center Peoria came calling.
As an adult, the Peoria native had moved away, with life taking harsh turns. Spousal violence and drug use was followed by a home foreclosure. She fled with her two little kids, but then ended up homeless and living in her car.
Schofield returned to Peoria, ending up with the kids at YWCA’s long-term shelter at 714 Hamilton Blvd. The site was bought by Dream Center Peoria in 2001, but the YWCA continued its shelters at the top floors.
After career counseling, she became administrative assistance for the shelter. She rose up the organization’s ladder, eventually becoming the YWCA’s director of operations. Meantime, she married and found a nice home for the family.
But by 2012, the YWCA hit hard times financially. Almost 120 people lost their jobs, with Schofield forced to give the bad news.
“I had to let go a lot of friends,” she says.
Soon, the YWCA dissolved, leaving Schofield jobless again. She vowed, “I will never word for a not-for-profit again.”
But then Dream Center Peoria stepped in, asking Schofield to help keep the shelters afloat. In time, as Dream Center Peoria took over the shelters completely, Schofield was offered the job of running them. Despite her earlier vow, she accepted the challenge.“I realized I had fallen in love with the Dream Center,” she says. “The Dream Center’s heart is so close to my own. They see that you need to see the family as a whole. You need to have programs for the kids and the adults.”
Schofield is now Dream Center Peoria’s director of homeless and housing. Her perspective gives dignity to others.
“You can see people from the outside as stinky and smelly and tattered,” she says. “But I don’t, and Dream Center doesn’t. They see people as children of God.”
What Dream Center Peoria means to me: “Dream Center is renewed hope. The Lord is going to take care of everything.”
Years from now, Kayla Hope might see Dream Center Peoria as they place that started her career as a teacher.
Then again, the 12-year-old might go into another line of work. Whatever the case, she will remember Dream Center as a place to get answers.
She started coming to after-school programs four years ago, in the third grade. In addition to getting help with homework, she long has played games and learned skills.
Recently, she has been enjoying classes on cooking, including egg rolls.
“Sometimes, I cook things I’ve never cooked before,” Kayla says.
A seventh-grader, Kayla already is taking college-prep courses. She is toying with the notion of becoming a schoolteacher.
“When I was little,” she said, “my mom said that job would fit me because I was bossy.
In high school, DCP youth can volunteer to teach after-school courses. Kayla says she might be a tutor for school subjects.
Then again, she also is drawn to devotional classes. She says Dream Center provides an atmosphere to explore spiritual questions with tutors and leaders.
“I like to ask about stuff that churches don’t teach,” she says. “Today, I asked, ‘If you were in the Army and you killed somebody, would you go to hell for that?’” Kayla says. “They said no: you’re protecting your county and other people.”
What Dream Center Peoria means to me: “The Dream Center is another church. If you’re not comfortable with church, you can come here and ask questions. Also, it’s about learning and having fun.”
Wanting to help others, Jeana Worthington didn’t give to charity — she started a charity.
Five years ago, upon the death of stepfather Darrell Davis, she decided to raise money in his name, with proceeds going to multiple causes. With the help of family and friend, she held a bags tournament in the hope of raising $500, but ending up pulling in $3,000.
“God has really blessed me,” says Worthington, 37. “No matter what goals I come up with, God smashes those goals.”
The next year, more folks came aboard. In addition to the bags tourney, they’d host get-togethers and do 50-50 drawings, football pools and other fun fundraisers. Plus, they’ll prod businesses to pitch in.
“We’re not wealthy people,” she says. “We’re average Joes who just care about other people.”
Two years ago at Riverside Community Church, she heard about the housing shelters at Dream Center Peoria. Worthington was moved by the programs’ classes and mentoring in life and career skills.
“They’re teaching people to be better,” she says. “They’re not just giving them a meal, but helping people grow.”
So, Worthington has made Dream Center Peoria a focus of her fundraising: $37,000 has gone to the shelters over the past two years.
“We’re all one disease away from bankruptcy,” she says. “You never know when you’re going to be in that situation -- or your brother or your friend or your coworker.
“Dream Center, they’re your brother’s keeper.”
What Dream Center Peoria means to me: “It’s hope for humanity, that there’s always someone who cares.”
Michael Winters Jr.
Kids used to drive Michael Winters Jr. crazy.
In 2011, a connection at Dream Center Peoria suggested the Illinois Central College student help with videography at a youth event. He agreed, but arrived to find what looked like chaos.
“I’m like, ‘OMG, they’re running around, yelling -- uh-uh,’” he says with a chuckle.
But he came back to help again, then again, each time finding a deeper appreciation for the youths and Dream Center. He marveled at teens flocking to choir, preaching and other upbeat activities.
“I thought this place must be something special,” says Winters, now 28. “The teens had the consciousness to do something positive.”
From volunteering, Winters has risen to become a youth counselor and the site manager for Project 309, the after-school tutor and mentoring program. He is still young enough to make connections and draw newcomers to Dream Center. But many of them face pressures from people in their neighborhood -- even adults -- who make fun of Dream Center participants.
“If they try something different, they’re called lame, they’re called stupid,” Winters says.
But he offers assurance that prompts kids to keep coming back.
“I tell them that the person who knows you best is you,” he says. “Remember, if they make fun of you, there’s a family here for you.”
And at the head of that family is the Father.
“We always put God first,” Winters says. “When you put God first, whatever it is, it’s going to be successful.”
What Dream Center Peoria means to me: “Hope. It gives people hope.”
Shenise Bramley has spent half her life at Dream Center Peoria.
And like many regular faces, the 14-year-old came first for help, and now offers a helping hand.
Academics originally brought her to Dream Center. As a student, Shenise long has pushed hard.
“I love school,” she says. “I want to better myself.”
Though attentive in class and diligent with homework, sometimes concepts confounded her. So, at age 7, she began coming to Dream Center for after-school tutoring help with Project 309. Now a freshman at Quest Charter Academy High School, Shenise still seeks assistance, often discussing a math or English assignment with Project 309 tutors.
“I can bring it here, and they break it down for me,” says Shenise, who plans to attend college and become either a marriage counselor or child psychologist. “They show me another way to look at a problem. That helps me keep my As and Bs, to keep me on the honor roll.”
Shenise also participates in Dream Center’s performing-arts classes, learning guitar and piano. Meantime, Shenise helps out with programs, such as the annual overnight lock-in filled with fun, games and God.
“We’re a big family,” she says.
What Dream Center Peoria means to me: "It’s a place youth can come and be themselves. We can worship God and learn life skills. It’s a new experience here.” #ThisIsDCP
Les Bramley came to Dream Center Peoria to drive a bus, but now drives dreams.
Six years ago, a friend at Dream Center said the organization was in sudden need of someone with a commercial driver’s license to take kids to summer camp. Bramley volunteered his services, but soon found himself involved more than just behind the wheel, especially the children’s programs.
“I liked what they were doing with children,” says Bramley, 52. “These kids are our next everything: doctors, lawyers, dishwasher, cooks. We need to empower them, to let them know they have worth, especially when you’re dealing with inner-city children.”
Now on staff as a youth assistant with the after-school program Project 309, Bramley helps mentor children. Tutors help with schoolwork, with experts lead classes -- repairing small engines, building motorcycles, writing computer codes and learning culinary skills.
“Some kids will go to college, but not all,” Bramley says. “Some can learn a trade and make $60,000 to $70,000 a year.”
Bramley knows that many Peoria youth lack solid parental support and face daunting street pressures.
“They look around and see what’s going on,” Bramley says. “But I tell them that they can succeed, then come back and make a change.
“You’ve got to believe in the power of prayer, because prayer can change things.”
What Dream Center Peoria means to me: “Hope. When you’re in a hopeless situation, you can come to a place that doesn’t look at your faults and doesn’t judge you.” #ThisIsDCP
Walter Eaton isn’t sure of his job track, but he knows he is on the right path with Dream Center Peoria.
There, Eaton, 31, feels a welcome sense of steadiness and hope.
After East Peoria Community High School, Eaton worked in a packing plant for a year. Seeking more opportunities, he joined the Army, serving six years, including a tour in Iraq. There, in convoy security during a firefight, he jumped off a truck with more than 80 pounds of equipment on his shoulder, the impact causing long-term back woes.
The injury lingered as he returned to Peoria, leaving him unable to get a job on his feet all day. Plus, he soon had the responsibility as chief caretaker to a new son, Alexander. Prospects looked bleak last year when he felt compelled to seek emergency shelter.
“We were living in an apartment that was unfit to live in,” he says.
They headed to the shelter at the Salvation Army, which advised him of programs available at The Village at the Dream Center. Residents live on-site while undergoing life-skills and job-training classes, under the guiding hand of caseworkers. The aim is to transition tenants into the job market and traditional housing.
At The Village, Eaton has been focusing on computer classes. Plus, he is learning how to maintain a household budget. Meantime, after kindergarten each day, his boy has been involved in after-school activities.
“It’s a nice program,” he says. “It helps families that need help getting back on their feet.”
What Dream Center Peoria means to me: “It means kids and families can come together and help each other out.”
Robbie Stewart is an inspirational face of hope at Dream Center Peoria.
The 57-year-old urges newcomers, “If you want to turn your life around, you can do it.”
Two years ago, a perfect storm of troubles pounded Stewart to her lowest point. She’d worked a dozen years at a Peoria pizzeria, but the the business went belly-up. As she tried to find another job, she got walloped by congestive heart failure, high blood pressure and kidney disease. Meantime, after she’d lived for years at the residence of a platonic friend, but he died and his family gave her the boot.
So, jobless and homeless in 2015, she came to the Dream Center’s emergency shelter. She soon moved on to The Village, a two-year housing program that teaches life skills (including parenting, budgeting, anger management) while transitioning women to traditional housing. Further, Stewart was the first participant in the Resident Employment Training Program, learning skills useful in the workforce. For Stewart, that mean computer training.
“I knew how to turn on a computer, but not much more,” she says. “So many jobs now, you have to have computer skills.”
With the assistance of caseworkers, Stewart completed the programs. Now living in a Peoria apartment, she works as a receptionist for the emergency shelter and The Village. When newcomers arrive, she encourages them, speaking from experience: “This is a program, not just an apartment. There are rules and classes. But there are case managers who will help you through every step of the way.
“You can make it. I’ve come full circle.”
What Dream Center Peoria means to me: “Life-changing. It helps you get on your feet. You can do it. You’re going to be all right.”
Michael and Jessika Reese
Michael Reese had to choose: go to work or take care of his daughter.
The electrician didn’t make enough money for daycare, and he didn’t have any help to watch over Jessika, now 6. When she didn’t have school, he had no one to lean on.
“I’m mom. I’m dad,” the 47-year-old says. “If your child is off school, especially for weeks or months, and if you can’t go to work, you’re going to lose your job.”
Three years ago, as Reese became jobless, the pair became homeless.
“I didn’t know anything about being homeless,” he says. “I didn’t know where to call around for a shelter or anything like that.”-
During a stay at the Salvation Army shelter, he was referred to Dream Center Peoria. The pair was accepted into The Village transitional housing, which requires community service by adult residents. For that requirement, Reese did electrical work for Dream Center Peoria, which in turn gave him a winning reference for a retail job at a hardware store, providing electrical advice to customers.
“It’s wonderful,” he says. “It’s like the perfect job.”
Meantime, Reese and Jessika moved to a rental home in South Peoria. On a scholarship, she attends Peoria Christian School. Each day, she comes to Dream Center Peoria’s Project 309, for games and tutoring.
“My favorite thing about it is homework,” she says with a wide grin.
Her dad smiles too, then adds, “Dream Center has been a life-saver.”
What Dream Center Peoria means to me: “The top of the building says, ‘Jesus Is …’ Jesus is everything: hope, love, life, kindness. I could go on and on. But Jesus is everything.”
Kealan Murray has grown up at Dream Center Peoria, where he learned service from his mother.
When he was born in 2001, mom Charla Murray was going through a challenging season of life. Facing serious health challenges, she had quit work the year before to take care of her ailing mother, who died in 2000. As her own health swooned further, Charla Murray had trouble finding work. And in 2003, her rental house burned down.
Life looked bleak, driving her into a suffocating depression. That’s when she was offered help from Dream Center Peoria, which provided home furnishings, discussed various programs and invited her to Riverside Community Church. Soon, Murray was volunteering at Dream Center Peoria, helping the organization that had lifted her up.
Meantime, Kealan was there all the time, especially with Project 309 arts programs. He learned to push himself, to the point the Richwoods High School junior is now on the school’s ROTC rifle team.
“Dream Center has always been there, whenever we needed help or a shoulder to lean on,” Kealan says.
In 2016, Dream Center Peoria and Riverside Community Church rallied around Kealan when his mother died. Though devastated, he grew closer to the church, where he now serves as a leader with its youth group. And remains connected to Project 309 and he begins to make plans to attend college.
“Dream Center is somewhere you can go to get help and be involved,” Kealan he says.
What Dream Center Peoria means to me: “It’s a beacon of hope.”
As a drug and alcohol counselor, Kimberly Johnson helps people who have fallen into the same trap that ensnarled her.
Now 54, the native Peorian got mixed up in drugs as a young adult, eventually turning to shoplifting to support her habit. Crack cocaine and retail theft eventually landed her in prison.
Johnson got out just before Christmas in 2009, with no place to go. From word-of-mouth, she went to the emergency shelter at Dream Center Peoria, then soon moved into its transitional-housing program, The Village. She was looking to draw new boundaries, with family, friends and herself.
“I figured it was time for me to do what I should have done years ago,” she says.
At The Village, she began taking classes. But the most important lessons came outside the classroom, as Dream Center Peoria shaped her for success.
“They humbled me,” Johnson says. “They made me follow the rules. You can accomplish things in life, but you have got to put your best foot forward.
“They believed in me. They gave me a chance.”
After staying at The Village for 2010 and part of 2011, she got a job and moved out, but enrolled in college courses, studying to become an addictions counselor. She now works in downtown Peoria as a drug and alcohol counselor.
“Who better than me to help people?” she says with a chuckle. “I’ve been there.”
What Dream Center Peoria means to me: “It helped me accomplish my dreams. If I can do it, start over at 47, anyone can.”