As a college student at the University of Missouri, Kam Phillips volunteered at a local Boys and Girls Club. There, she got a lesson in reality when she asked kids what they liked to do for fun.
“I was surprised to hear kids say, ‘Throw rocks at cars,’” said Phillips. “I’d say ‘What do you wanna be when you grow up?’ and they’d say rapper or football player over and over and over.”
Phillips realized she had to do something — something that would turn these kids’ prospects around.
“You can only dream what you’ve seen,” she said. “So if you’ve never seen engineering or if you’ve never seen horses, then maybe you don’t know that that’s something that’s a possibility for you.”
Phillips asked the club’s director if she could introduce the kids to college students. They passed on lessons about horses and goats, engineering and lacrosse.
Eight years later, her passion’s now her full-time job. Her title: Founder and Chief Executive Dreamer of the Fort Worth-based nonprofit Dream Outside the Box. One of her goals is to get kids to dream big about their future careers.
“I was just really fortunate that I was young enough, to be naïve enough, to believe that you could just start a nonprofit,” Phillips said. “I was 17 when we started as a college organization and 21 when we started as a nonprofit and went full time in 2014 when I was 23.”
Phillips is now 26, and there are 11 colleges with chapters around the country, from the University of Chicago to USC. In Texas, there’s UT-Austin, UNT, SMU and TCU.
The chapters partner with after-school programs in areas Phillips calls “dream deserts.” College kids are in charge of the programming.
On a recent morning, Phillip stopped by a summer camp at Como Community Center, a historically African-American neighborhood about 10 minutes west of TCU.
She popped into one of the classrooms where students like Kylie Williams worked on a project.
“OK. So Kylie, what are you doing today?” Phillips asked.
“What I’m doing…I’m making a habitat for a duck,” Kylie said. “I have land. I have water. I have food. We have sand in my group, and we use foil for the water…”
Kylie’s nine and headed to fourth grade in a couple of weeks.
“Doing all this stuff makes me happy in the summer because when I go back to school, I will know much stuff,” she said. “So when we go to science, and we learn about engineers and habitats, I can know stuff and I help my friends to know stuff.”
Phillips grew up in Alvarado, about 30 miles south of the Como neighborhood. She jokes she was born on a saddle and raised in a barn. Her dad’s a black cowboy, a rodeo bull rider who now trains horses. In high school, she competed in barrel racing and ballet folklorico.
“Anything that I had an inkling to experience, whether that was horse judging or pageants or journalism camp, my parents really worked to foster and encourage that environment. And there were no limits. You just couldn’t start something and then quit.”
Her college student volunteers take the same approach. One week, they’ll invite the society of women engineers to teach kids how to build bridges. Another week, kids learn how to dissect owl pellets.
That’s right, owl pellets.
“If it’s not hands-on, it doesn’t go into our curriculum,” Phillips said. “We just simply believe that we have to kind of push the envelope in terms of imaginative programming whether that’s making slippers and learning about textiles or looking at meteorites and then having the kids actually build their own rockets to launch.”
On this morning, a fire alarm went off and kids streamed out of the building. It was just a drill.
Standing outside, Carol Brown said Phillips shows kids what’s possible. Brown ran the center for 30 years.
“A lot of these kids never really get out of the community,” she said. “They never really get to go on vacations. They don’t get to do any exploring. So she brings it in to them, which is so important for them.”
Jailah Williams, who waited outside during the drill with Phillips, also had a few things to say. The 9-year-old girl didn't hold back.
"She’s a nice teacher and when she yells at you, she only yells at you for you to act right,” Jailah said. "That’s her way of showing love. Apparently.”
Phillips burst into laughter.
This summer, KERA’s education reporters are profiling folks making a difference in North Texas schools. We’re calling them American Graduate Champions.