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His dream: An end to the family prison cycle

Published November 4, 2004

Minister and gospel singer Wintley Phipps has performed for every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter.

His audiences also have included Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela. He has appeared on Saturday Night Live and was the soloist at Diana Ross' wedding in Switzerland. He was a featured "angel" on Oprah Winfrey's talk show and one of the entertainers who serenaded her on her 50th birthday.

Yet Phipps isn't likely to boast about his star-studded encounters. As president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Dream Academy, Phipps strives to use his celebrity status to help the children of prisoners.

"What I've sought to do since trying to build this program is leverage the relationships I've built and exposure I've gotten to build something that's going to help kids long after I've gone," Phipps said. "It's been really exciting and very, very rewarding."

Phipps brings his story to Tampa at 6:30 tonight as the keynote speaker for the annual Abe Brown Ministries dinner at the Hyatt Regency Tampa. Well, make that keynote speaker-singer, because the Grammy-nominated Phipps will do a little of both.

Born in Trinidad and raised in Montreal, Phipps didn't become intimately familiar with gospel music until he attended Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala. As his recording career blossomed, Phipps, who has earned degrees in theology and divinity, began ministering in prisons.

Visiting with inmates had a profound effect.

"It's one thing to hear that one out of every three African-American men are in prison or on probational parole," Phipps said. "But when you're walking around the prisons and it looks like Morehouse, when it looks like a historically black college, it shakes you to your core, especially if you have children."

Phipps has three sons, but another family relationship also inspired him. The seven brothers and sisters of Phipps' wife, Linda, all spent time in prison. Realizing the children of prisoners are likely to spend time in prison, Phipps decided his mission was to break the cycle of what he calls "intergenerational incarceration."

The Dream Academy was born in 1998 from that desire. It seeks to help the children of prisoners and children who fall behind in school through mentoring and a customized online curriculum.

"We want to increase the density of caring and loving adults in their lives, and then give them tutorial and remedial support and really a vision of a family they can build," Phipps said. "We like to say a child with a dream is a child with a future."

Based in Columbia, Md., the academy has sites in Washington, D.C., New York, Newark, N.J., Philadelphia, Baltimore, Houston and Atlanta. Another center is planned for Orlando.

The mission of the Dream Academy mirrors the longtime efforts of local icon Rev. Abe Brown. The ministry of the former coach has spent the last 28 years striving to help offenders, ex-offenders and their families.

Phipps is an ideal speaker, and I can only hope Tampa appreciates him as much as Oprah. And Diana. And Nelson. And Mother Teresa.

By the tim e you read this, the Salvation Army's Tree of Lights breakfast likely will be under way at the Tampa Convention Center. Nationwide, much has been made of the $1.5-billion contribution from the estate of Joan Kroc, the widow of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc.

Locally, the string of summer hurricanes have stretched the Army's dollars.

And it doesn't help that Target has banned the familiar bell-ringing kettle collectors from their store fronts across the country. The company said it could no longer grant the Salvation Army an exception to its no soliciting rule. Wal-Mart limits charitable solicitations to 14 days.

That's something to keep in mind as we make our holiday donations. To me, the kettle collectors were not only worthy but provided a quick and easy lesson on charity for the kids.

I can't figure out why the retailers would tamper with a holiday tradition. What's next: pulling White Christmas CDs off the shelves or prohibiting sales of It's A Wonderful Life?

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper can be reached at 813 226-3406 or

[Last modified November 4, 2004, 00:40:23]

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