Disney, celebrities inspire teens to dream of careers

By ERNEST HOOPER, Times Staff Writer
Published January 24, 2008

Troy Williams III never imagined his culinary class at D.W. Waters Career Center could lead to an appearance on a national television show.

But Disney has a way of making the unimaginable come true.

The resort chose Williams and 99 other teens to be a part of the inaugural Disney's Dreamers Academy, a unique career enrichment program created by resort officials and morning radio personality Steve Harvey. A distinguished panel selected the students from a pool of 3,000 nominations.

Students went behind the scenes at Disney World this past weekend, and participated in a series of workshops designed to immerse them in information about various career fields. Williams' immersion included the challenge of helping prepare dinner for his fellow participants.

Along with three other students, Williams joined Chef Robert Irvine for a special episode of Dinner Impossible, the Food Network show in which Irvine accepts a challenging "mission" each week.

Irvine, who is opening two restaurants in St. Petersburg, and Chef Jeff Henderson cooked up an elaborate buffet meal that included short ribs, flank steak, creole chicken, salmon with mango mustard, paella and 12 other items - with the help of Williams and his new-found friends. The episode is set to air in October.

"I was cleaning up pineapples, chopping vegetables, decorating cucumbers, putting steaks on the grill," said Williams, who was on the verge of dropping out two years ago but has reversed his fortunes. "I learned a lot."

The most valuable lesson, however, had little to do with kitchen etiquette. Henderson, voted the most inspiring speaker among a long list of celebrities, shared with Williams and the other students how he went from being one of San Diego's top drug dealers ($35,000 a week) to prison to executive chef at Las Vegas' Cafe Bellagio.

Throughout the weekend, organizers blended practical experience with star power and tales of inspiration to stoke dreams and create hope.

"You had people from all different backgrounds, and we heard their stories," said Erin Ravenel, a 14-year-old freshman at Tampa Bay Tech. "We learned where they came from, how it wasn't easy for them growing up and how they got to a higher place through hard work.

"You could relate to them."

Ravenel, whose brother Eric is a standout basketball player at Brandon High, also harbored dreams of playing sports before being diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, a connective tissue condition that can result in sudden death due to exertion. The diagnosis prompted her to turn her attention to a nursing career, but after attending a sports business seminar during the academy, she realized she can seek a career that taps her passion for sports.

The closing ceremony included more stars and an inspiring message from Naval Academy running back Zerbin Singleton, who explained how he persevered through the drug-related imprisonment of his mother, relocating to a foster home, being hit by a drunken driver and the suicide of his biological father.

Today, Singleton serves as brigade commander at Annapolis, and is on pace to become a Marine pilot and possibly an astronaut.

Harvey also drew Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks, TV host Star Jones, American Idol winner Fantasia, teen TV stars Kyle and Chris Massey and Grammy-nominated recording acts Keyshia Cole and Musiq Soulchild to the weekend. And Disney did not pay the stars to appear.

"There are a lot of very intelligent young people here who have a lot of passion, a lot to offer," Soulchild said. "All they really need is someone to care and give of themselves."

Boca Ciega senior Anjanetta Hunter said she would cherish that gift and the transforming nature of the entire weekend.

"Now I see myself being a nurse, being in college and doing the right thing," said Hunter, who overcame learning disabilities to get on track.

After this weekend, I think all 100 kids are dreaming big.

That's all I'm saying.