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Defining Moments – Believe in Dreams – C to C, The Commitment to Community Podcast Series from Oswald

January 14, 2022

Believe in Dreams is a Northeast Ohio-based youth empowerment organization who serves kids who are economically disadvantaged and/or have survived non-medical adversity or trauma. Over 50 percent of the youth served have experienced three or more serious hardships. Check out the podcast below for a conversation with Michelle Wohlfeiler Bailin, Chief Fundraiser for Believe in Dreams, to learn how the fulfillment of personalized dreams helps create positive defining moments in kids lives, and removes barriers to reach goals that were previously unattainable. Founded in 2014 by Cleveland entrepreneur John DiJulius III and his son Cal, Believe in Dreams collaborates across the community to deliver its mission from a foundation of trauma-informed care and ethical storytelling.




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SCHMITZ: Hi, it’s Christina and we are back with another episode of C to C the Commitment to Community podcast from Oswald Companies. Now, when it comes to kids, dreams are never in short supply… the ability to fulfill those dreams? Well, that’s why I’m here today with Michelle Wohlfeiler Bailin, Michelle, thank you for joining us. I’m so fortunate to be talking with you today. Would you mind introducing yourself to the audience here?

BAILIN: Hi, everybody. I’m Michelle Wohlfeiler Bailin. I am the chief fundraiser for an organization called Believe in Dreams, a local youth empowerment organization right here in Northeast Ohio.

SCHMITZ: So our paths crossed…we’re meeting here virtually today here in the fall of 2021, but we’ve never actually gotten to meet in person. Our paths have crossed only in this pandemic. So this feels very natural. Speaking with you this way, we’re just chatting. Hopefully in the future, we’ll be meeting in person. So how did you land with Believe Dreams? How did you get to this position?

BAILIN: So I have been in nonprofit fundraising for about 20 years, and I have worked with some large health nonprofits as well as some local Northeast Ohio social service organizations in, like many of my colleagues and many people out there when the Pandemic began, the organization that I was with did let go of about half the staff, and I was one of them. And I was lucky enough to spend some time with my now four-year-old. So I guess he was three at the time and just really think about what I was going to do next.

And I came across the Believe in Dreams organization, and I had never heard of it before. I went on their website. I saw the opportunity and just where I am as a mother and everything else, it just really was a great fit. I reached out to apply for that position and so here I am.

SCHMITZ: Great. We met actually through one of our sales executives, DJ Santiago. And if we wouldn’t mind telling, DJ has such a passion for this organization and what you do, would you mind sharing a bit about that connection?

BAILIN: Yeah. Absolutely. So DJ is a member of our board of trustees. He’s been a member, I believe, for about two or three years now. DJ is in quotes. Our first dreamer, DJ is from the city of Cleveland. He grew up in the city of Cleveland. And Eddie Cheyfitz, who is a volunteer of our organization and the brother-in-law of John DiJulius, who is the founder of our organization back in the 90s, had a team called the Andy’s Niners. And for those of you who don’t know, DJ is a baseball player.

DJ was leaving a high school game, and one of the umpires handed him his business card about this, Andy’s Niners, DJ called that number. So for those of you who also don’t know playing on summer baseball leagues, there’s a large cost of that DJ from a single family household in the City of Cleveland. We had some financial restraints, and he was able to get on that team. Eddie and his wife at the time they took care of. They covered all expenses and not to quote DJ, but he will tell you that that’s really what helped him.

That one thing helped him really on the path to where he is today. He played professionally in baseball. He had moved away, got married in Florida. They moved home in 2017 here to Cleveland. He reconnected with Eddie and Kathy Cheyfitz, and he is now one of our biggest cheerleaders for Believe in Dreams.

SCHMITZ: Definitely. We’re very grateful to have DJ on our team here at Oswald, and he certainly again shares that story and that passion to inspire others. And I know he took part in your annual gala this year, and it’s great to see those connections and people that have taken part in a nonprofit in a certain point in their life, coming back to return the favor and pay it forward. It’s just such a great story. Thanks for sharing that.

BAILIN: Absolutely.

SCHMITZ: I do want to talk about Believe in Dreams because it definitely differentiates itself in the community. And there are several different aspects to that. Would you mind sharing a bit about your trauma informed care and, more specifically, your ethical storytelling pledge?

BAILIN: Sure. So let me just share. So Believe in Dreams. We are a nonprofit where we empower youth, economically disadvantaged youth who have experienced a non-medical trauma, an adverse childhood experience and providing them access to enriching opportunities, connection to community and hope for their future. Just so to understand where the trauma, informed care and ethical storytelling comes in most of our kids, all of our kids have experienced an adverse childhood experience and what that entails. The most common ones that we see in our organization are loss of a loved one, extreme poverty, neglect, abuse, whether that’s physical, mental or sexual abuse, witnessing domestic violence, incarcerated parents.

The list does go on and on. But those are the most common traumas and adverse child experiences that we see in the children that we serve, typically adverse child experiences. There’s a study that says once you’ve had about three or more of those, there’s a dramatic effect of your long-term physical and mental health. So about 52% of our kids that we serve have experienced three or more of those traumas, so kind of giving you a background of who these kids are..

SCHMITZ: No, it’s staggering. Just one of those areas on the list. It’s hard to swallow. So I can’t imagine the amount of trauma that the kids that you’re working with.

BAILIN: Yes, for sure. And so that is at the forefront of everything that we do. It’s all very much trauma informed and wanting to make sure that this is an experience that is empowering and enriching for them. And we have taken the Ethical Storytelling pledge. I know that’s kind of in the nonprofit world. People will ask us why you don’t see pictures of our kids everywhere, take them places. You all really have them out there. And we are always making sure that what is best for these children is always what’s in forefront.

So people who connect directly, like if you help with our organization, all of our social workers are trained to be able to communicate and help with their families and have direct communication with them. When you see stories from us, they’ll be either changed names, no pictures, different things of that nature, because especially with the social media world, you don’t know, people can potentially identify a kid. There are about half of our kids don’t live with their parents or in the foster care system. There are children who are afraid of a birth parent finding them. There are just a lot of things that we need to make sure that we are following when we are sharing any of our stories. Absolutely.

SCHMITZ: I completely understand. And again, it’s such an organization, apart from how you fulfill your mission, but then also how to get the word out through different ways. So hopefully through this, we’ll continue to help make new connections for your organization. And that’s really the goal of why we’re speaking today.

BAILIN: Certainly. I was going to say yes. That is, the struggle is real. We want to make sure that we’re sharing and people understand what our mission is and what impact as a donor or volunteer that they are making and what it means to these kids long term. But again, just doing that in the most delicate and appropriate manner.

SCHMITZ: Got it. When I first had spoken with you, something that has just stuck with me since our first conversation. And when I was thinking about your organization, I looked on the website. When I think about fulfilling a kid’s dream, going to a professional sports event, going to an amusement park, that’s what is top of mind. But I talked with you. You shared that some people or some of the children dreams being fulfilled are as simple as having an actual bed to sleep on… fundamental needs. Can you expand on that a bit to really provide clarification on what your organization provides?

BAILIN: Sure. So how our organization works is that all of our dreamers and you have to be under 18 at the time of nomination, are nominated by an adult in their life. That’s not their custodial parents. So we work with a lot of school systems, a lot of other nonprofits I know you had mentioned, I think Boy and Girls Clubs, different nonprofits, social workers, the foster care system, coaches, clergy. What have you …all different… Life Banc, all different, Hospice of the Western Reserve. So many organizations and school systems. We are just now partnering with the US Marshals…they’re rescuing kids from human trafficking. So just the list goes on and on. So they are nominated to our organization. And then what we do is it’s a two-fold dream process. One is one item. We want them to have fun because these are kids. That fun is a memorable fun experience and then a long-term lasting impact. So while the dreamer there may be.

And again, it’s all about these things, like where you want to go in Northeast Ohio, we don’t send any kids to Disney World. It’s nothing of that nature. So that fun experience can be going to an amusement park. Actually, quite frankly, the enrichment experience can be going to a professional sports game. Well, for you and I, it’s not a big deal. But kids in these economically, this trauma can be a huge impactful experience. Just like DJ said, just getting handed a business card. So what we’ve seen, we’re a pretty fluid organization, so I know I’ve talked with you.

In 2020, during the pandemic, we saw a lot of dreamers requesting bicycles. There’s a lot of what bicycles mean as far as freedom and kids being able to ride and go and maybe escape different things of that nature and a lot of access to technology. With so many all the schools going virtual, being in homes where there could be multiple kids and not everybody with one tablet or whatever, just being able to have access to technology. As we saw turning into 2021, in the springtime, we saw a majority of our dreamers were asking for beds and bedroom sets.

So there is a lot of information on sleep, poverty and what that means with so many about 50% of our kids not living with their parents, then they’re typically living with another family member who’s already financially constrained. They’re either sleeping, sharing a bed, sleeping on a couch, maybe just sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor, having your own space, to be able to study, to be able to get away. And having your own space is for all of us is so important. And for kids, if there’s proof that when you have your own space, they excel in school, they learn better, they’re healthier.

There’s so much more that happens in that space. So moving to currently going on right now as we’re going into fall, what we’re seeing currently is we have a lot of dreamers that are looking for art classes and art supplies. We have currently a 14-year-old dreamer who wants to paint sunsets like Bob Ross, if you’re familiar with his sunset. And again, there’s a study and information. I know. I’m sure people are familiar with different art therapies but really having them have access to this art to help them self heal and feel self love and to be able to express how they’re feeling and work through their trauma is really a big thing…what we also do is we eliminate any boundaries for any lessons. So one in five of our kids gets lessons, whether it’s art or ballet or music or karate or whatever it may be, we eliminate any boundaries. So whether it’s transportation, whatever you need for those classes, if it’s swimming lessons, swimsuits towels, all that good stuff. Now, while for most of us, that doesn’t seem like a lot for these families and for these kids, it’s everything to them.

SCHMITZ: It actually answered my next question. I was going to ask about the range of dreams that you do fulfill. There’s really no limit to what a child can dream as long as they have the person that will in their life to nominate them, I guess, or bring them forth.

BAILIN: And all of our dreams are personalized individually for each child. So one of the nice things as we grow our network, we’ve gotten, some of the kids who want to do coding classes or learn animation or things that we don’t necessarily have access to that. And so we’ll share that out with what we call our dream grant or some of our in-kind donors out there and say, hey, who in their network maybe know somebody that can help fulfill this dream? We’ve done a lot of job shadowing with police officers, architects, people who are into that kind of work.

People want to be hairdressers, just the whole gamut of different activities. So it’s individualized. We never know what’s going to happen from each time when I was sharing it. Those are some of the trends that we see. But even within there’s always everybody’s individualized has individualized dreams.

SCHMITZ: guess I’d ask, since joining the organization, what have you learned personally? I know you shared earlier as being working parent throughout the pandemic, also working in the nonprofit sector. What have you learned or what has inspired you?

BAILIN: What has inspired me is I’ve gone on several dream experiences and every reaction a kid has, it’s different. So when you go and you maybe think this kid is going to be like, oh, my God, it’s so exciting. Everybody’s very different. But I went on a dream presentation this summer with about he was a 15 and a half year old boy. So another thing that we do is help with drivers training. And he was most fascinated. He kept reading. So we come with a letter that is written by us, as well as their nominators, talking about all the positive, all the resilient qualities that that dreamer has.

And he was like, couldn’t believe that there was a letter that people were speaking this way about him. Right. So right now I’m going to get shows and get going right now. So that to me, is those simple things. It’s just showing these kids that somebody cares and believes in them, and that can possibly you hope that that’s the thing that puts them on that… really gets them getting through that. So that’s something that he got: Driver’s Ed training. He got a new iPhone… but he literally read the letter three or four times.

And the smile from his face with everything that he has been through which he’s got, I just count the top of my head has about three or four adverse childhood experiences. He lives with his grandfather. His younger sister passed away of an illness and some other things… the smile and even the nominators of that smile. The grandfather had not seen a smile like that on him in so long to think that simple thing. And he’s like, Can I frame this letter? Do I get to keep it?

It was just such an experience to be part of that. And that’s kind of where I take it is that we’re making that impact on one kid at a time here in northeast Ohio to really help change the trajectory of their futures. Wow.

SCHMITZ: Thank you for sharing that. I can see and sense just the emotion of that moment. But then multiply times. I think I saw 400 dreams so far just since you’re founding, just I think over maybe five or six years ago.

BAILIN: Yeah, we’re about 430 now 430…keep going…We did two, three presentations last week, and we continue to keep on going. Our strategic goal is to do 1,000 dreams by 2028. But I think that we are and I don’t want to speak, but I think we’re going to be looking at next time. We have our strategic planning session to kind of adapt that a little bit because I think we are going to meet that well before that time. So really focusing on even doing more and more kids? Definitely.

SCHMITZ: So how can we get involved? How can companies, individuals. families. What’s the best way to get started?

BAILIN: Well, always visiting our website, which is Believe in Dreams dot Org. One of the great ways to get involved just in early on is reach out to us through the website. There’s a thing on there for volunteers to be a dream grantor to get on our list, to possibly be a connector when we’re looking for dreams. Or maybe we had somebody who’s, like a CEO of a company, but he’s also a pilot, and he has his own airplane. So he’s taken a dreamer up on an airplane, so may not be related to your Corporation or your job, but just you personally, maybe what you are able to help out.

We do three events every year. We do a gala that Oswald is a supporter of, it’ll be in April 2022. We do a golf event and a 5K run walk event at the Zoo, which is an amazing family fun event. And it’s really great, actually, this year we were virtual in 2020, but in 2021 we actually had a few of our dreamer families come, which is really great and they’ve getting involved that way. It’s really a great community events and being able to really bring people together.

And those are kind of the main ways that you like to checking out our website. Reaching out to me. My email address and phone number is on the website. Michelle at believeindreams dot org, two L’s Michelle and connecting that way.

SCHMITZ: Well, thanks so much for taking this time today and sharing a bit. I know there’s so much more to the story and so much more to come from Believing dreams. I’m grateful for that opportunity. And again, we’ll share the links and everything through the post. But, Michelle, thanks again. I really appreciate it.

BAILIN: Well, thank you, Christina. You know, really, we appreciate being here. We appreciate your support and we appreciate being able to spread awareness about the great work of our mission. So thank you.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and web formatting.

Introducing the C to C podcast, an oscast by Oswald production

Commitment to Community is a core value of Oswald; it’s the foundation of who we are and the purpose behind all we do. The CtoC podcast provides a platform for nonprofit partners to share their stories and discuss the critical issues facing their clients. Our goal: create a halo effect of service and support, inspiring our audiences to align with causes that speak to them and take action in their companies and communities.

Hosted by Christina Capadona-Schmitz, VP and director of marketing communications and leader for community engagement, this podcast series features in-depth interviews and highlights the good works happening throughout our communities.