For young adults looking to get involved in philanthropy, The Dream Project helps students to engage in both service and fundraising for various causes, culminating in an annual bike ride to raise awareness.
Gabrielle Rossi, one of the organization's founding members and a graduate student in the Rutgers—Newark School of Public Affairs and Administration, said the organization started in 2013 after she and four other Rutgers students decided to bike from New Brunswick to Disney World in Orlando, Florida, to raise awareness for childhood cancer. This bike ride eventually developed into The Dream Project, which commits itself to supporting philanthropy at the undergraduate level, she said.
“I believe that the more we can do to make philanthropy an accessible, teachable concept for each of those undergraduate students at a juncture in their lives where they are trying to figure out who they want to become and how they want to contribute to the world around them, the more we can ensure the rise of a more civically engaged generation,” she said.
The organization’s model allows for teams of students to spend time learning about several local organizations and eventually nominate one to support through the bike ride, Rossi said.
The teams then spend the subsequent year volunteering at the chosen organization for 100 hours and plan a bike trip ranging from one to two months, which includes service days where they stop to volunteer at local charities across the country, she said. By the end, each participant ends up fundraising between $2,000 and $4,000 for the organization.
Although the bike ride normally takes place nationwide, the project stayed close to home and focused on communities around New Jersey due to pandemic-related constraints.
Rossi said that this year’s team of five student riders chose to partner with Triple C Housing, an organization dedicated to providing affordable housing to those experiencing homelessness or who are affected by a disability, according to its website.
The riders, all of whom were Rutgers students, traveled to all 21 counties in the state, biking to a town in the morning and volunteering with local organizations in the afternoon, as well as hosted community biking events in New Brunswick, Jersey City, High Point and Cape May, Rossi said.
“The cross-country rides we're used to hosting are fun, don't get me wrong. But, there is so much good we can and have been doing right here in New Jersey,” she said. “The Dream Project has always worked because as cool as the bike ride is — and, I know, it's cool — it's really not about the bike ride at all. It's about the people who come together to support their communities.”
Miranda Barnes, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences junior, is 1 of the 5 riders that participated in The Dream Project’s statewide bike ride this year. She said that by working with the project for more than a year, as opposed to more short-term charitable events, she was able to develop a deeper relationship with philanthropy.
Barnes said that her experience with this year’s bike ride came with both excitement and challenges. As an out-of-state student, she said she enjoyed exploring New Jersey and meeting people with a variety of perspectives and passions. Though, she said she also faced challenges regarding her mental health during the trip, sometimes finding it overwhelming to be in an unfamiliar environment.
“My teammates were incredibly supportive when I was struggling, and even if I wasn't always in a position to participate in the way I would have wanted to, I am grateful that they allowed me to remain involved in a fashion that accommodated my needs at the time,” Barnes said.
She said the support she received from her teammates this summer has motivated her to continue working with The Dream Project for the next year and provide the same support to other students.
Rossi said that one of The Dream Project’s missions is to encourage students to continue committing to service for the rest of their lives. She said the organization taps into two forms of motivation that propel people to do volunteer work: Being socially responsible and exerting oneself physically for the sake of a good cause.
“Riders have told me they're motivated by all of the above — supporting their charitable partners, the physical representation of the ride, the people who were cheering them on, etc.,” she said. “Philanthropy and volunteerism are muscles that should be strengthened and fortified over the course of a lifetime; programs like (The Dream Project) can be a young adult’s gateway to these behaviors.”
Rossi said another one of The Dream Project’s missions is to encourage communities across the country to commit to service. For example, she said that after witnessing riders bike through their town in 2019, the residents of LaCrosse, Washington, organized to collect food and donate to those in need in nearby communities.
In the future, she said she hopes to return to facilitating bike trips across the country and to see people recognize the bravery it takes for students in The Dream Project to take on a cause and literally go the extra mile for it.
Barnes said that while people may be physically or mentally intimidated by getting involved in The Dream Project, they should know that the program is designed to ensure participants’ comfort and success.
“Whatever obstacle you're facing, I believe this initiative is designed to bring you to a place where you're capable of making this trip a reality, providing the bike, setting up opportunities to train and taking your needs into account during the planning process,” Barnes said. “Life is too short to make excuses — go out there and get started.”