best local volunteer

Leslie Silva reads to her "Dreamers" at the Hailey Public Library. The students were chosen by the Idaho chapter of the I Have a Dream Foundation to get special assistance and guidance toward attending college.
Photo by Roland Lane

turning dreams
into reality

I Have a Dream Foundation board member
Leslie Silva voted valley's Best Volunteer.

Freddie Harris

With the rising cost of tuition in the U.S., and student loans overreaching other kinds of debt, getting to college can seem like a daunting prospect for many high school graduates and their families—more so for first-generation college students.

Many young people dream of going to college, but realize that the costs of actually attending are prohibitive. Others may start, but drop out as motivation wanes and college preparedness seems too challenging. And, statistically, young people from lower-income families have a harder time reaching for the diploma at the end of the tunnel.

Cue the Idaho chapter of the I Have a Dream Foundation, and the valley's Best Volunteer, Leslie Silva, a member of the organization's board of directors.

The foundation guides selected groups of young students from elementary school through high school and ultimately provides them with scholarship funds for two years of higher education. The designated "Dreamers" are kids who might not have the opportunity to attend college without the foundation's commitment. With the help of the foundation, college aspirations become reality.

In the spring of 2013, the Idaho foundation adopted the entire third-grade class at Woodside Elementary School—now Alturas Elementary School—as "Dreamers."
"It has a great mission," Silva said. "We assist kids academically through mentoring, tutoring and enrichment programs."

Indeed, a college future begins with a mindset instilled in "Dreamers" at an early age—a mindset, Silva insists, that honors community and teamwork.

"A village is what it takes to really make a difference in the lives of kids," Silva said of her kids and "Dreammates"—the team that makes academic impossibilities into realities in the Wood River Valley.

Silva said she is inspired by the students she works with.

"A young boy that started out with us spoke no English, not really Spanish, either," she said. "He now reads clearly in English. And he doesn't give up when the going gets tough. He sticks with it to the end until he has success. And he smiles!"

Another "Dreamer" was impossibly shy and wouldn't join the group.

"As long as I've worked with kids, I was facing my biggest challenge," she said.

However, surrounded by support and encouragement, the girl has blossomed.

"A year later, the trust happened," Silva said. "And she let go of the shield she had built up around her.

"All of the kids rallied around to support and help these kids," she said. "And all of us volunteers did our best to make them feel a part of the group."

Asked about what makes her work with the I Have a Dream Foundation so special, Silva talks of the long-term relationships she can build with her kids.

Silva was asked to join the organization by its president, Ken Lewis, whom she had worked with on the board of The Community Library in Ketchum. She said she leapt at the opportunity.

"In my prior role working with kids," she said, "the relationship lasted through their elementary school years, but then it would end and the child moved on."

Now, however, Silva can maintain a relationship with the kids she helps for much longer, a relationship that in its longevity enhances their chance of a college career.

"I couldn't be happier!" she said. "I've been three years with I Have a Dream and the relationships that I have already developed just keep getting stronger."

Silva imagines her "Dreamers" at college graduation—a dream that for many might be impossible without her help.

"I can't wait," she said. "I feel so spiritually and emotionally full from all I've stepped into. I can't stop smiling. It has brought me a great sense of purpose."

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