The Dreamer culture values integrity, determination, respect, empathy, achievement, and motivation.  Creating a specifically defined Dreamer Culture is an important tool in building community for a Class of Dreamers; developing shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterize this community that will provide a culture of support for each person’s efforts to reach their goals.   Each Dreamer Class uses specific strategies to create traditions and practices that are unique to their community.  However, all share common core values and approaches.  

The Dreamer Culture is aided by specific goals and milestones for academic achievement, character and emotional intelligence, and life skills.  In general, this will include establishing:

  • the PD role, creating community, establishing Class norms and protocols
  • Behavior management / incentive systems
  • Character development, conflict resolution, and social-emotional support groups
  • Dreamer appreciation for others
  • Cultivated relationships with program partners
  • Positive community view of Dreamers (respectful behaviors, introduce themselves…)

“I Have a Dream” creates programming that addresses the components outline below from three perspectives:

  • Dreamers – focusing on individual behaviors and attitudes
  • Parents – partnering with parents to create a culture that is supported at home as well
  • “I Have A Dream” – staff focus on goals, and maintaining healthy, strong relationships

The underlying theory we utilize for developmental milestones is illustrated by the following approaches used at different age levels:

  • Elementary School ages – do it because adult says so… building culture of behaviors and supporting each other
  • Middle School ages – do it because the Dreamer believes it’s right… maintain culture of behaviors and supporting others
  • High School ages – do it because it’s the right thing to do… maintain culture, supporting and teaching others

Components of Dreamer Culture

Program Directors are responsible for facilitating the community-building process.  Together with Dreamers, families, and significant partners, they establish the culture of a Dreamer Class.  

Creating Community

Motivation for learning is fostered when learning environments provide support, respect, and belonging.  Reciprocal caring, and respectful and participatory relationships are critical determining factors in whether a student learns; and ultimately whether the youth feels that he or she has a place in society.   Shared practices and traditions provide familiarity and common practices that facilitate interactions and build bonds between the community members.

Developmental Assets

The Search Institute, a research organization of applied social sciences, has developed a list of 40 “Developmental Assets” that are strong statistical predictors of success in school, good health, and avoidance of destructive behaviors.  A strong Dreamer culture promotes the development of these assets for Dreamers, and supports parents in providing them for their children.  

Community Members

A Dreamer Culture is established by the intentional behaviors of and daily interactions between the Program Director and other staff members, Dreamers, parents/guardians, other family members, teachers, school or housing staff members, sponsors and volunteers. 

External Resources

The Program Director will document Partner Agreements with program partners to set and share norms that establish common best practice when working with Dreamers.  In addition, recent books we have found helpful include:  Learned Optimism, Optimistic Child, and Mindset.

Specific Strategies

While each site practices different norms and develops a unique community, a few “all Dreamer” common practices serve to unite the Dreamers, and provide consistency across Classes.  The specific strategies that are common to all programs, operated by “I Have a Dream” include the following, and are implemented at developmentally appropriate stages.

Parent/Guardian Committee

Parents/guardians are the chief advocate and guide for their child’s education.  “I Have a Dream” programming is designed to support parents’ efforts to be the most informed parent possible.  Each Class forms a parent committee that meets once each month to build community, participate in parent education, plan events, and share resources and the experience of parenting a Dreamer.  

Dedication Ceremony

At the launch of each new Class of Dreamers, and about a month or two after programming begins, a ceremony is organized to celebrate the new Dreamers.  The Dedication Ceremony includes a dinner for families before the ceremony, testimonials from past Dreamers and parents, remarks by community partners, such as the school superintendent or the housing director, and culminates in Dreamers stating their Dream and why, receiving a certificate and a special book, and reciting the Dreamer Traits and the Dreamer Pledge.  The ceremony is held in the auditorium at the high school, attended by families, sponsors,”I Have A Dream” Board members, and others.

Dreamer Pledge

The nat’l Dreamer Pledge was written by IHDF founder, Eugene Lang and the the original Dreamer Class in NYC.  

I have a dream, Tengo un sueño

I am a Dreamer, Soy un Soñador

I believe in my Dream, Creo en mi sueño

I believe in myself, Creo en mí mismo

My family believes in me, Mi familia cree en mí

My sponsors believe in me, Mis patrocinadores creen en mí

My family – My teachers – My sponsors, Mi familia –  Mis maestros – Mis patrocinadores

I won’t let you down!,¡No los fallaré!

I’m going to stay in school -, Voy a quedarme en la escuela –

Work hard – Study hard -, Trabajar duro – Estudiar mucho

I’m going to go all the way to college, Voy a ir hasta la universidad

And make it big!, ¡Y lograr todas mis metas!

I’m proud to be a Dreamer, Soy orgulloso de ser un Soñador

I have a dream!, Tengo un sueño

I have a dream!, Tengo un sueño

Dreamer Values  – “I DREAM”

The Dreamer Traits are taught to Dreamers in the first month of Dreamer programming and reinforced throughout their years.  The acronym “I DREAM,” with accompanying movements, is used to learn about:

I – Integrity  (one hand over heart, the other raised as if to pledge)

D – Determination  (fist hits palm of other hand)

R – Respect  (wiggle body, pointing one finger and sing R E S P E C T)

E – Empathy  (hug yourself)

A – Achievement  (thumbs up)

M – Motivation  (wiggle body with locomotive motioning of arms)

Access Skills

Examples include:

Before Middle School 

  • Able to own mistakes and move forward, do what you say you’ll do every time (integrity)
  • Resiliency – able to try new things, keep trying when fail, stick with commitments, etc. (determination and motivation)
  • PETSY (Please, Excuse, Thank You, Sorry, You’re Welcome) behaviors trips, etc.
  • Treat others as you want to be treated, show compassion (empathy)
  • Conflict management skills – no bullying, resolutions without fighting, no excluding (all)

Before High School

  • Self-Advocacy (motivation, and resilience)

Opening/Closing Circles

Opening and closing circles are used at the beginning and end of programming each day.  Circles identify the Dreamer community, provide a few moments of reflection and transition, and provide a forum for shared information and celebration.

ACTS  (Apologies, Call Outs, Thank yous, and Shout Outs)

ACTS is the acronym for a reflection structure, at the end of the program.  The two appreciations are taught and practiced first, adding apologies and call outs, when the PD feels the Dreamers are ready to use them constructively.

Introductions/Social Skills

Dreamers learn the social skills for introducing themselves to adults.  They will use these whenever a new adult joins them at programming, when sponsors visit, at appropriate “I Have A Dream” events, and to introduce themselves to their teachers each year, etc.   A good practice is to have a few of the Dreamers introduce themselves and briefly interview a new volunteer, and then introduce them to the group at circle time.

Thank You Notes and Letters

Each and every time someone donates their time, energy, financial support, or other resources in any way, the Dreamers (and staff) create a thank you note, and whenever possible express appreciation in person as well.  Program staff should also submit an in-kind form to the Central office any time a donation has monetary value.  An official letter with tax receipt will be sent.

Behavior Protocols

Each programming site will establish behavior protocols that are developmentally appropriate to the Dreamers at that site, and work in concert with those established by the host site (school administration, or housing site etc.).  

Organized Sports

Organized sports not only keep kids healthier physically, but mentally as well.  Sports build confidence, develop focus, and teach Dreamers about emotional control.   They learn essential life skills, such as hard work, patience, persistence, and how to respond positively to setbacks and failure.  They also gain the more tangible benefits of connection to their school community and the transition to high school, concrete reasons for good nutrition and avoiding alcohol and drug use, and possible college scholarship resources.  

Organized sports teach the essential life skill of getting along with teammates they might not necessarily like, how to overlook an annoying teammate or a bad attitude, and encourage friendship and empathy with teammates.   Athletes learn to respect and honor their coach and the coach’s decisions, but also to respect their fellow teammates. By noticing the strengths that each individual player brings to the team, they’ll learn to appreciate and respect each others’ talents. It’s healthy to be competitive, but respect fosters a friendly competition that pushes each teammate to be the best he can be.  In addition, team sports give a Dreamer something to take pride in. Once they achieve goals they set for themselves, they’ll gain pride in their success, confidence in their skills, and the courage to take healthy risks.  Children who participate in team sports learn how to be disciplined during practice, how to focus on the task at hand, and how to have patience when the going gets tough. They also have to learn how to achieve balance between their schoolwork and athletics, which fosters a strong work ethic both on and off the court.  Learning that in the real world life isn’t always fair, unfortunately their team won’t always win, and every call by the referee won’t always seem fair. Dealing with disappointment will only make Dreamers stronger as they grow older. Not only will they gain the willpower to be the best they can, they’ll also learn the importance of perseverance and endurance and most importantly, to never give up.  Dreamers gain greater confidence by learning about their own strengths and capabilities, and gain leadership skills.  For girls entering adolescence, team sports are especially important.   This is a time when most girls are being bombarded by messages about the importance of their looks and popularity, which can take a toll on their self-esteem and can lead to eating disorders. Team sports help build their confidence by proving that they’re valued for more than just their looks.  

Extended Field Trips

Over the years, PDs will arrange and/or facilitate opportunities for Dreamers to access opportunities and expand their horizons.  This will begin early with trips like an overnight at the zoo, and develop to include participation in camping and hiking, overnight ski trips, campus visits in Colorado and other states, supporting Dreamer participation in school sponsored trips, the National Dreamer Conference, and organizing Dreamer Class trips, as resources allow.  

Special Interest Opportunities

Program staff encourage, promote and facilitate Dreamer access to special interest opportunities such as providing for individual music, dance, and performing arts classes, individual participation in summer camp offerings (science camps, etc.), and any other special interest.

Unique Class Traditions  

In addition to the common practices outlined above, each PD works to create intentional traditions, and fosters those that naturally develop, that are unique to that Class of Dreamers, and provide Class identity, shared experience, and fond memories.  For example, one PD asked Dreamers what they wanted to call homework, and they named it “dinky di”, which made it a lot more fun to talk about completing.

Motivation, Participation, & Discipline

Dreamers who participate eagerly and work hard may lose interest in IHDF if the Program Director spends too much time and energy on the less engaged Dreamers. This PD addressed the challenge by setting aside the daily after­ school program as an inviolable time for the Dreamers who were by and large on the “right track.” They knew they could always find the PD there and he would not allow himself to be distracted by the “emergency of the day.” Another unintended consequence of focusing too much energy on the Dreamers with urgent or persistent troubles is the potential to overlook what some would call their “quiet Dreamers” -those who are getting by in school and at home, perhaps without standing out but without any big bumps along the way either.

You also have to pay attention to the quiet kids, the ones who may not be the “superstars, ” but who do not make trouble. We had one Dreamer who got B s in school, always came to tutoring, and seemed fine until she took her PSATs. She got a 560 combined score. We were really surprised. She had breezed through her classes without learning; she had just slid through unnoticed. —Sponsor

Staff “burnout” is unfortunately also a common side effect of Programs’ constant efforts to give every Dreamer what he or she needs to succeed. For instance, one IHDF Program found that the PD and AmeriCorps members were experiencing cynicism, frustration, and discouragement as they tried to boost the participation levels of their high school Dreamers. One strategy that seems to have helped to alleviate this situation has been the staff’s increased efforts to engage a network of adults who have significant influence over the Dreamers-parents, relatives, teachers, volunteers, mentors, whomever the Dreamer responds to-rather than trying to tackle each Dreamer’s problems alone. This approach, referred to as the Dreamers’ Community Strategy, gives Dreamers more options and more people to call upon as they confront different situations. It has also increased the Program’s effectiveness because Dreamers find it hard to avoid or manipulate a task force of several people working together for the common purpose of getting Dreamers moving in a positive direction.

Is there a remedy to the persistent challenge of allocating the program’s time and resources effectively among the Dreamers? Balancing the Program’s efforts to work with Dreamers who have different types and urgencies of needs will be an ongoing challenge. However, there are a few ways to make the going a bit easier: the ED’s support and flexibility, an  open door policy, and a sense of humor help.

A critical factor in avoiding burnout is the support and trust of my Supervisor. I set my own hours and take time out when I need to. First, you have to look out for yourself and your family, and second, you can’t work too much. You have to be stable yourself so you can help someone else. —Program Director

Some students are always having problems. I hound them for a while;  I talk to their teachers and counselors; but I can’t spend all my time on the most difficult cases, so after a while I leave the student alone. Sometimes they need space to work things out. They know my door is always open. —Program Director

We got frustrated at times. At the start of the program, our goals were totally unrealistic. We had to learn patience. We also had to learn to make light of the problems sometimes. —Sponsor

“Once a Dreamer, Always A Dreamer”

This policy states that a Dreamer may never be excluded, eliminated, or terminated from the IHDF Program unless the Dreamer’s involvement threatens the safety of other participants in the Program. IHDF encourages Dreamers to set high goals, stay in school, and achieve fulfilling lives. IHDF Programs must find ways to reward all successful performances whether they be academic, civic, work related, or social. At the same time, the “Once a Dreamer, Always a Dreamer” policy means that Sponsors and PDs must give Dreamers who fail another chance. They must have faith that most Dreamers will ultimately find a way to succeed, even if it takes longer for some to discover it. 

This section discusses various approaches such as recommitment  ceremonies and  incentive  programs that are used by Programs to motivate Dreamers, to reward participation and achievement, and to instill in Dreamers a sense of accountability to IHDF while still adhering to the “Once a Dreamer, Always a Dreamer ” philosophy.


  • Balancing efforts to work with Dreamers who have a wide range of needs is a constant challenge for IHDF Programs. Be careful not to overlook the Dreamers in the middle-those who are quiet or just getting by. Keep a sense of humor and perspective about the work IHDF does.
  • At times, the “Once a Dreamer, Always a Dreamer” policy can be extremely frustrating for Sponsors and PDs who spend countless hours tracking down wayward Dreamers or become impatient with misbehaving students who disrupt activities for others. There probably isn’t a Sponsor or PD who hasn’t had to curb their despair with Dreamers who  have potential but fail to appreciate or take advantage of the opportunities that IHDF offers them. Some have expressed their frustration that at times the “Once a Dreamer, Always a Dreamer” philosophy leaves them feeling powerless to impose sanctions upon Dreamers who are either disruptive or apathetic, while other Dreamers participate eagerly. 
  • One of the greatest challenges Sponsors and PDs face is striking a balance between “putting out fires” for the Dreamers who have problems and devoting time to supporting Dreamers who are either just getting by or excelling. As any Sponsor or PD knows, helping Dreamers through the daily crises in their lives can quickly absorb all of a PD’s time and sap his or her energy.

The students who were doing well academically complained about not getting enough services. The concept of IHDF-not to give up on any Dreamer-was foreign to teachers and parents, so it was foreign to the Dreamers too. We just had to stick to our guns. We were like parents, and we didn’t give up on our kids. —Program Director

Despite the challenges that IHDF’s “Once a Dreamer, Always a Dreamer” policy raises for IHDF Program’s, most Sponsors and PDs support the philosophy. Individual Dreamers change during the course of the program as their life circumstances change and as they grow up. One Dreamer may be an actively involved, high achiever in elementary school only to hover on the brink of dropping out in ninth grade. Others who were “terrors” as middle schoolers develop into ambitious adults in high school. Many Sponsors and PDs tell stories of Dreamers who had drifted away from the program for years before something in their lives caused them to return to IHDF for help. Some wanted to get their GEDs; others wanted to return to school. These Dreamers often comment that the “Once a Dreamer, Always a Dreamer” promise was a powerful factor that persuaded them to seek out IHDF’s help.

I was the first to graduate from high school and the first to go to college. I wouldn’t have if not for “I Have a Dream.” It makes me look forward to doing something with my life and not just kicking back at home. It boosted my self-esteem.



Hold periodic recommitment ceremonies to reinforce IHDF’s commitment to the Dreamers and their families and to reinvigorate the Dreamers’ and families’ involvement in IHDF.

No matter what mistakes in judgment Dreamers make along the way, the constancy of the IHDF Program makes a strong impression on many of them. IHDF Programs can strengthen the impact they have on the Dreamers by periodically reinforcing their commitments to the Dreamers. Recommitment ceremonies are an increasingly popular and proactive way for IHDF Programs to do this. 

What is a recommitment ceremony? It’s a celebration at which Dreamers, parents, Sponsor, PD, mentors, teachers, and any other important participants in the IHDF Program restate the promises made to each other at the beginning of the program. Recommitment ceremonies reinforce the goals of the IHDF program, reinvigorate Dreamers’ and parents’ motivation to participate in IHDF, and recognize IHDF’s ongoing commitment to the Dreamers. Typically, recommitment ceremonies are held at critical transition points in the Dreamers’ lives, such as graduation from elementary or middle school. IHDF-Houston holds ceremonies annually at the beginning of each new school year or to celebrate Program anniversaries. 

Dreamers of all ages enjoy the process and formality of recommitment ceremonies because it makes them feel that they are a part of something positive and successful. The typical IHDF recommitment ceremonies include a resigning of the Dreamer and Parent agreements and a reiteration of the terms of IHAD’s tuition assistance policy. Dreamers may also recite the Dreamer Pledge or make new pledges of their own. Speeches by distinguished guest speakers or an address from the Sponsor are also good ways to restate IHDF’s continuing commitment to the Dreamers and their families.


Dreamer Councils motivate Dreamers to participate by giving them a voice in the program’s operations. Dreamer Councils are another way to motivate Dreamers to be involved in IHDF. They give Dreamers a role in Program decision making while also teaching them about leadership, policy making, and problem solving. Typically, Programs start Dreamer Councils in middle school. These councils operate like student councils do and usually elect officers and appoint committees. Dreamer Council members help plan IHDF events, trips, and service Programs. They also advise the Sponsor, PD, and board members regarding their needs and program interests for the year. Dreamer Councils have also been used as a means for applying positive peer pressure to promote responsible behavior among Dreamers. At some IHDF Programs, the Dreamer Council estab­lishes criteria for eligibility to go on field trips, college visits, and other special outings. The council enforces the criteria  and decides who can or cannot attend.

At first when the Dreamers suggested that they choose who deserved to go on special trips, I thought “Oh no! They’ll just pick  their buddies.” In fact, the Dreamers took their role very seriously. After we instituted this method of selecting Dreamers to go on trips, we had fewer behavior problems because Dreamers started to reprimand each other in a constructive way. —Sponsor Representative

Another good example of the use of this approach is the Dreamer Council at one IHDF Program. A group of 12 Dreamers, each of whom showed a strong interest in being a member of the Dreamer Council, meet once a month to discuss various issues in their IHDF Program These Dreamers also have a strong say in the management of the All-Star program, an incentive program that rewards Dreamers for living up to a series of criteria that the council established.

To become an All-Star, each Dreamer must collect six signatures from different people in their lives, including a teacher, a good and honest friend, his or her parents, and the PD. These signatures confirm that the Dreamer is living up to the Dreamer-established All­ Star criteria, which includes respect for self and others, attendance at school, and being honest. As long as they follow the criteria, they remain members of the All-Star Club and earn the right to take

IHDF-organized special trips four times a year. This system is based upon an incentive program that the local elementary school maintains, but it has been modified and sculpted by the Dreamers. In short, they have set standards for themselves and ask each other to maintain them.

Incentive Programs


  • Incentive programs should set high standards and create a supportive environment for Dreamers. Sponsors and PDs must agree on the goals of the program and follow the incentive system rules consistently.
  • Involve the Dreamers in the design and management of the program. This will spark their interest and make the incentives more effective.
  • Offer appropriate rewards:
    • Choose rewards that are age appropriate.
    • Select rewards that Dreamers will like but that also offer some educational value.
    • Remember that simple and inexpensive rewards are often enough.
    • Incorporate ways for Dreamers to practice goal setting and attainment by offering increasingly bigger and better awards.
    • Create an incentive program that offers opportunities for every Dreamer to earn rewards.
    • Be sure not to establish incentives that might exclude a Dreamer from core IHDF Programs.

Designing Incentive programs are a very concrete, tangible approach used by some IHDF Programs to motivate Dreamers or encourage certain behaviors. Typically, Dreamers earn points or fake money, often called “Dreamer Dollars” or “Dreamer Bucks,” for things such as getting good grades or attending tutoring. By earning Dreamer Dollars, Dreamers earn the privilege to participate in special activities or to receive rewards such as stickers, movie passes, or gift certificates.

Set High Standards

You should make your expectations clear and set very high standards from the beginning. Once you have the system in place it is hard to change it. —Executive Director 

PDs have found that setting high but attainable standards of behavior, attendance, and respect are precursors to a successful incentive program. Dreamers tend to reach for the goals a program sets. Rewarding them with a special trip for simply showing up to tutoring sessions is not as effective as rewarding them for successfully completing their homework or working quietly with their tutors. Requiring Dreamers to earn rewards and privileges over time can also help teach self-discipline and organizational skills. For instance, awarding Dreamer Dollars to Dreamers who have perfect attendance for a month requires more effort and commitment from the Dreamers than rewarding them for perfect attendance for one week would have.

Determine Incentive Goals

Incentive programs in IHDF Programs incorporate a wide range of goals. They may focus on academic performance or behavior. Some are very focused, awarding Dreamer Dollars to those who work in the Program’s computer center on a regular basis for example. Others have a broad agenda, touching all elements of the Dreamers’ performances from school attendance and achievement to acts of kindness or community service. Before starting an incentive program, the PD should identify the areas they want the Program’s incentives to address. Once decided, it is also important to write a description of the incentive program and a schedule of rewards for both the organizers’ and the Dreamers’ reference.

Involve Dreamers in Creating the Program

Involving the Dreamers in the development of an incentive program helps them understand the goals of the program and gives them a stake in its success. As one PD reported:

We do a lot of talking with the Dreamers to involve them in the incentive program. We ask them “Why do we have rules?” or “What would you do if you had a group of younger kids you had to organize?” This way we make sure they understand what we are doing, and if they have questions we can just remind them of why they said the system was important. —Program Director

Talking about the program and incorporating  the Dreamers’ ideas into the plan is an important way to help them focus on the values and skills being reinforced: education, self-discipline, respect for others, and so forth. It is also a good way to strengthen the rules of the program by asking the Dreamers to be accountable both to themselves and to their peers. If they each agree that following the rules is important, and decide what many of the rules will be, following those rules will be easier. Of course, getting the Dreamers’ input can also help PDs choose rewards that the Dreamers will enjoy.  Dreamers can also be involved in administering the incentive program. 

The PDs of one IHDF Program plan to get the Dreamers involved in settling disputes related to the program by creating a Dreamer Court to mediate. The Dreamers will serve as the judge, the lawyers, and the jury in a case. The Dreamers respect and praise each other, and this system will allow them to sort out their problems. If a Dreamer has a problem in the program, they will present their case to the court, and the other Dreamers will decide what to do. Program Director

A Dreamer Council can serve the same purpose by reviewing the points Dreamers have earned to determine who is eligible to attend special outings. The Program should also consider involving parents and the Dreamers’ teachers in the incentive program. If they are aware of the incentive program, they can reinforce the program’s goals, remind Dreamers of the rewards at stake, and report Dreamers’ successes to the PD so Dreamers can earn Dreamer Dollars for their hard work at home or school.

Be Consistent

It is also important that PDs apply the incentive program rules consistently. While it is impossible to always be entirely objective, the Dreamers must feel the program is fair or they will lose interest.

When some of the Dreamers complain that others who earn rewards are getting special treatment, we just stress that we are being fair. There are rules and we stick to them. —Program Director

Keeping good records for the incentive system is an important part of consistency. The tracking system needs to  be simple  and easy to manage. The incentive system takes time to oversee, but if it becomes too time-intensive or if it detracts from running regular programming, it should be revised. 

In order to keep Dreamers engaged as they mature, it is necessary to modify even a totally successful incentive program. Most PDs find it useful to alter the reward structure so that Dreamers must gradually accomplish more to earn Dreamer Dollars. Also the types of rewards and privileges Dreamers can earn need to be adapted so that they  continue to be interesting and age appropriate. When changes are needed, make them formally and consult the Dreamers first. Announce the changes in writing and explain why the rules are being changed-to offer better rewards, to recognize new goals, or to remedy earlier problems, for example. Also, set a clear start date for the new rules to become effective. 


Offering appropriate rewards is a key element of a successful incentive program. The following criteria for choosing effective rewards were mentioned repeatedly by PDs:

Age Appropriateness

By asking the Dreamers what they want and using sound  judgment, IHDF organizers can pick  reasonable  and  desirable  rewards. Over the life of an incentive program,  rewards will  have  to be modified as the Dreamers mature. IHAD-Los Angeles has found that a Dreamer store is a flexible way to offer age-appropriate rewards to Dreamers because the store merchandise can be updated as the Dreamers’ interests change. This program spends roughly $150 a month to buy goods  that  the  Dreamers  request such as stationery, cassette tapes, and hair products.

Other PCs have found that the flexibility of trips helps them accommodate the Dreamers’ changing interests over time. Again, asking the Dreamers what they want is key. At age eight, a trip to the zoo can be the highlight of a month; at age 13, a trip to a professional sporting event is more appealing; and for juniors and seniors, overnight college visits are fun and educational.

Many IHDF Programs completely phase out incentive programs like Dreamer Dollars once the Dreamers are in high school. Job opportunities become the strongest incentive IHDF can offer to encourage participation and academic performance once Dreamers reach this age.

At IHDF-National, we frequently get calls from distressed Sponsors or PCs who say the Dreamers just aren’t participating as much as they used to. Usually these calls come when the Program’s Dreamers are in tenth grade. It’s a difficult transition time for Dreamers as it is for many teenagers. Going to IHDF activities may not be so “cool” anymore so we urge Sponsors and PDs to start focusing on employment opportunities at this age. Internships and jobs often help Dreamers in many ways- they are motivated to earn money, they experience success on the job that they have not achieved in school, and they start to understand the school-work connection more clearly so school motivation may improve. 

Programs also need to readjust their expectations once Dreamers are in high school. The PD should spend more one-on-one time with the Dreamers and plan small-group activities. Dreamers don’t want to go on big (and conspicuous) IHDF outings anymore. But that’s okay as long as the program tailors its focus accordingly. —Deputy Director, IHDF National

Educational Value

Whenever possible, a reward should be an enriching experience in and of itself. A number of PDs note that the point of a reward is to motivate the Dreamers. A trip to the local library does not always excite them, particularly as they get older; however, a blend of enrichment and excitement can be found. One IHDF Program offered a Driver’s Education course to Dreamers who got Bs or better in their other courses. Of course, parents had to agree to let the Dreamers enroll. Another PD offers her younger Dreamers time on the Internet in the computer center. Many activities that may appear to lack educational value hold important lessons for most Dreamers. A dinner at a fine restaurant coupled with a discussion of the cuisine and its cultural history broadens Dreamers’ experience and provides an opportunity for them to learn how to act appropriately in such surroundings.

Some PDs have found that a trip to an ice rink or watching a baseball game are exciting to the Dreamers. These recreational activities are certainly appropriate-having fun  is  allowed-but  be  sure  to avoid rewards that the Dreamers want but that are not in keeping with IHDF’s goals. For instance, taking Dreamers to see the latest violent horror movie is not a good choice.

Simplicity and Affordability

These two criteria often go hand in hand. Dreamers of all ages cherish simple, inexpensive acknowledgments such as plaques and certificates, especially if they are awarded publicly at an IHDF awards ceremony or gathering. Many times inexpensive options are easy to find. This is especially true for young Dreamers. A trip to the public zoo can be quite affordable. Even stocking a ministore at a cost of $150 per month, approximately $2 per Dreamer, can be a worthwhile investment to keep the kids coming to IHDF sessions. Donated prizes are ideal. Often local merchants, chambers of commerce, or professional sports teams are willing to offer a contribution or free admission to an event, particularly if the donation is a reward for good grades or behavior. For example, IHDF-Boulder solicited donations from local retailers of everything from movie passes, basketballs, and bookstore gift  certificates to horseback riding lessons and waterskiing sessions.

When selecting rewards remember that Dreamers will develop expectations. It is better to start with small, inexpensive rewards so that expectations are not raised too high. If the big reward in the first year is a trip to an amusement park, Dreamers will expect an equally attractive reward in the future. These special outings can be lots of fun and a great activity for Dreamers to look forward to all year, but Programs should be careful to stay within their means when planning for big rewards.

Goal Setting and Attainment

Incentive programs seem to work better if they incorporate a way for Dreamers to work towards better rewards over a period of time. For example, five Dreamer Dollars may be a trip to the movies but if the Dreamer saves 25 Dreamer Dollars, it’s a trip to a professional basketball game. Several Programs allow Dreamers to spend their Dreamer Dollars on trips or prizes, or they can choose to save them in a Dreamer bank earning interest. Adding increasingly sophisticated ways for Dreamers to “delay gratification” and earn more Dreamer Dollars is also a good way to adapt the incentive program as Dreamers get older.


The incentive program should not operate to exclude Dreamers from the basic services each IHDF Program provides such as tutoring, mentoring, and college tuition to high school graduates. These basic services must be offered to all the Dreamers; the Dreamers should never be asked to earn the fundamental elements of an IHDF program. Also keep in mind that many special activities may be important experiences that should include all the Dreamers.

Originally, we said that trips were only for All-Stars. But then we warned that some trips, maybe  a trip to a college, were not necessarily a prize that All-Stars wanted to earn. Also, many of the Dreamers who did not earn these trips [in the incentive  program] needed to go. We have modified this aspect of the program. —Program Director

An incentive program should not become a method for screening which Dreamers attend the core IHDF functions.