Established in the early 2000s by Reverend Jesse McNeal, the original Freedom Center was to be a safe haven amongst the bars, laundromats, and convenience stores of a Lakeland area deeply affected by poverty. Reverend McNeal hoped to spread the Word of God into the community, and his efforts laid a strong foundation for future success. A small coalition of churches and local businesses stepped up and dove into the vision by helping with the finances to improve the facilities and expand outreach programs. The Freedom Center became the Dream Center in 2008, led by Victory Church staff pastors, Executive Director Mike Cooper and Program Director Steve Hill. The continuation of the success rested in developing a model of community-based service that brought churches, city government, local businesses, and community members into a cohesive tribe with a focused mission: Make a positive difference, every day, on every corner, in every individual.
Pastor Michael Cooper walks past us and does a quick 180 to introduce himself. He’s a big man with a big personality, and it takes less than five seconds for me to recognize he has an equally big heart that beats wildly for the mission in this neighborhood. He explains the importance of stepping outside of the church-only model to embrace the city as a whole. The church has always provided a great base of volunteers ready to serve in difficult positions. But the entire community benefits when we can marry those efforts with the unique strengths of businesses, the expertise of government officials, and the on-the-ground experience of law enforcement. Code Enforcement and other local government entities can come on a volunteer work day and give us valuable insight on the immediate and pressing needs to be addressed. Police officers show up in plain clothes to volunteer and get to establish relationships with neighbors as they work side by side. “It’s not just churches, not just business, not just government… It takes all of these. This is everybody’s Dream Center!” Pastor Mike smiles and suggests I take a tour.
We start in the community center which is equipped with a commercial kitchen (every single event here includes a hot meal for participants) and a computer lab. Neighbors can come to the lab for assistance with resumes or to learn how to file for services that will help them over the rough patches. The main gym is set up for Kids Club which meets every Saturday. Pre-Covid, the Kids Club was serving around 200 kids split into two time slots every Saturday. The program includes games, learning activities and themed messages that address big topics like drug abuse and bullying.
As children age out of Kids Club, they become members of the Extreme Team, volunteering in the programs from which they graduated. “This helps them stay connected to the positive messages while giving them experience as leaders,” Whitney explains. She shows me the Men’s Mentoring space, a toddler room where mothers come to share in Bible Study or other mentored activities, and a comfortable room with couches for other classes. While some programs are provided year-round, other programs change on a 9-week cycle to give volunteers a break and to keep the opportunities to engage fresh for participants.
We step across the street to another low profile tan building. Here she shows me a full exam room and sonogram machine managed by Options for Women. The partnership with this organization has been monumental in the ability of the Dream Center to serve women. Next door, we meet Carolyn Espina who manages the diaper bank. She is from the New Life Center for Family Preservation. Here, women can come once a week for a short session on some aspect of parenting and afterwards receive all the diapers and wipes they need for up to three children. Carolyn handles the distribution of collection boxes, as well as the organization of the actual weekly program. “We can’t do it all,” Whitney points out. “We recognize that and foster relationships with entities that can help us expand our reach. We do a few things really well and one of those things is to make partnership easy for others!”
As Whittney and I step out into the sun, I hear praise music pumping through the streets. A man setting up giant speakers smiles and waves us over. He turns down the music as we approach. Daniel Litt radiates enthusiasm and I cannot help but to match his giant grin. This is Reach the Streets, the Tuesday Night Block Party with games, giveaways, and a message of God’s goodness. Daniel heads this program and he has been faithful for many years. He has also been encouraged by what he sees. “God is doing things and changing people. People came to be served and now they are doing the serving!”
The Mercantile is next. Managed by a host of volunteers, this is often the easiest entry point for members of the community. While neighbors can come and select their weekly groceries and essentials, they can also exchange vouchers for specialty items. These vouchers, handed out at every class and program for attendance, give a person the dignity of upgrading their selections, making choices and improving their situation. A new toy for a child, an adorable dress with chic shoes for an interview, some perfume, or even the fixings to make a birthday cake can be purchased with vouchers. Volunteers go above and beyond to create displays, greet customers and assist with ideas and selections. These touches are essential and needed here. These volunteers step gently into the lives of the neighbors to massage tattered hearts and mend broken spirits.
The Dream Center of Lakeland stands as a beacon of hope in a community which could quickly become hopeless. There is obviously a lot of need here. But I invite you to expand your viewpoint beyond the obvious. Lakeland, as a whole, the entirety of the city, is better because of the Dream Center. The change that began with the simple seed of kindness has flourished under the warmth and care of every person who has invested financially, emotionally, and physically into this vision. It really is everybody’s Dream Center.