Discovering and developing dreams for children of all ages

by Anna Ferraro

“We want to turn people’s interests and dreams into a career. So they actually want to get up in the morning and go to work,” said Steve Cantrell, vice president of Jacksonville’s Dream Center Foundation. He asked, “How many children do you see now going to college and they change their major up until their junior and senior year?” The answer to that question, he says, is “too many.”

Cantrell’s on the school board, so in his own words, he’s “dealt with children for a long time.” Through his work with the schools and now with Dream, he’s convinced that children need to get in alignment with their skills and dreams at an earlier age, saying, “It’s parents’ money, children’s money – being wasted on a lack of knowledge and skills.” He shares, “Our goal is to get a mindset starting from elementary and junior high so that once children are in high school, they already have a career path going.”

With the foundation, children and adults alike have a chance to discover what they want to do, develop it into a marketable skill, and in the process, “not be afraid to challenge themselves.”

With a broad range of resources and skills on their board, the foundation offers a vast array of opportunities for local individuals. Cantrell shared that when an individual comes to them, they initially ask a lot of questions, about their hobbies, interests, likes and dislikes – such as, “What do you like to play with your friends? What did you enjoy as a fourth grader? What makes you feel filled?” He commented, “or we start naming occupations.”

Once the individual has discovered a path with their mentor from the foundation, they get hooked up with an activity and continued mentoring along the way, from one of the 40+ mentors involved. Cantrell said, “We watch them connect with the activity, or turn off to the activity.” He continued, “We do a lot of public speaking, community projects … gets everybody involved. We’ve had students come that wouldn’t say five words, and six months later, they’ll carry on a conversation with a total stranger.”

The activities available through the foundation cover almost every occupation imaginable – construction, crafting, agriculture, acting, music, art, culinary services, painting, historical work and research, and much more. Cantrall shared, “We work a lot with the Prairieland Heritage Museum.” Getting children working in the ham and bean kitchen (learning food codes and preparation protocols), introducing them to the sorghum kitchen (learning about older culinary techniques), learning about how agriculture used to work, running the old equipment and helping during the steamshow – “everything from cooking and parking cars. Mainly, we like teaching them how to deal with the public.” Cantrell commented, “We have had two young ladies that we trained to operate the old saw mill. We don’t know of any other young ladies in that age range that can run a saw mill.”

They’ve taken students to work at the Clayville historical sites, giving presentations, being tour guides and more. They’ve gone out to Woodlawn Farm to dress up, work in the gardens and raise crops to give away. They recruit students to work at ballgames, learning how to run concession stands – serving, taking orders, handling food, setting up, tearing down and more. They’ve spent weekends cutting wood at the Lincoln Campgrounds – learning how to clear ground and safely run chain saws.

In every activity, Cantrell has a singular passion – give children the tools and knowledge they need to forge a career path from an early age. He also focuses on families, inviting parents to join in with the children. He shares, “When children and parents see the healthy opportunities and the healthy interactions, their interactions and conversations together are more positive.”

Recently, Dream purchased the old Jacksonville Theatre Guild building (across from the library), turning it into a performing arts center for the foundation. There, young actors and actresses have the opportunity to hone their fine arts on the stage doing music, improv and acting of all types. Cantrell added, “We’re also renting the space out for parties and events. By doing that, our children learn how to create an event, and they know what it takes to do it. The set up, contracts, tear down, décor … they can learn it all. They can say, ‘I’ve done it.’ And they’ve got a resumé to back it up.”

To Cantrell, the most rewarding aspect of his work is, “The transformation of when we first see [the children], to 6-12 months later. [Seeing] the sparkle in the eye, the sense of achievement in, ‘I can do that. I have done that.’ Their interest in doing more, and they want to do more.” At Dream Center Foundation, the ideal thing is, “Nothing is mandatory – if you’ve got one hour a week, or 10 hours a week. Come try something for an hour or two, and make it work for your schedule.”

He says that along the way, “We encourage children to try activities that they have never heard of and know nothing about … if you don’t have knowledge, everything will scare you, until you have knowledge of it.” But once you have the knowledge and the skills, you’re free to pursue your dreams. And thanks to the Jacksonville Dream Center Foundation, you have that opportunity. To get involved, visit, check them out on Facebook, or contact Steve Cantrell at 217-473-1303.

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