By Tracy Morin
Photography courtesy of DeSoto County Dream Center
With a focus on food, clothing, education, and healthcare, the DeSoto County Dream Center offers a range of outreach programs to uplift the community.
As campus pastors at Compel Church, Audrey and Lee Smith have long felt that some of its greatest work happened outside of the church building and in the community. That instinct led the husband-and-wife team, now directors of DeSoto County Dream Center in Horn Lake, Mississippi, to create their nonprofit just as the pandemic was poised to impact American communities in January 2020.
“COVID allowed us to have a greater opportunity to serve our community, and there are four main areas we generally focus on,” says Audrey Smith. “We exist to build hope in DeSoto County by feeding, clothing, and assisting with educational and healthcare needs.”
For educational help, DeSoto Grace (located inside the Dream Center) works closely with the school system and teachers, offering an education and activities program for children in grades three to five, as well as a mentorship program for grades six to 12. Children receive homework help and tutoring, with a focus on math and reading.
“We also assess the families as a whole to see how we can meet the needs of the entire family, not just the educational needs,” Smith says. “What are the family dynamics? Is it a single-parent home? How can we help them? Does mom or dad need a job? We can make that connection. It’s all about building relationships with these children and their families.”
In the healthcare category, DeSoto County Dream Center works through Trinity Heath Center, an on-site medical clinic offering full-family care for the working uninsured. The fees are based on a sliding scale determined by income and family size to make quality healthcare available to all.
Meanwhile, launching their organization at the outset of the pandemic revealed a massive need for helping to feed the county’s hungry more than ever before. They first arranged a drive-through food distribution site, serving about 100 cars twice weekly, doling out boxes of perishable and nonperishable food items.
“It was heartbreaking those first few weeks, because everybody we talked to had just lost their job, or they were sick, or had a family member in the hospital with COVID — the need was great,” Smith says. “Then we found out through a partner agency about the Farmers to Families food distribution program offered through the USDA.”
Smith was asked if she could distribute enough food to fill a semi-truck trailer, the equivalent of serving 1,000 families a week. She wasn’t sure, but she jumped at the opportunity, believing the community need existed. The Dream Center contacted the school system for permission to set up in the parking lot of Horn Lake Middle School.
“It was absolutely amazing, what we were able to experience and the stories we heard,” she says. “A couple of months in, they asked if we could handle another location, so we set up in the Olive Branch High School parking lot. Every Saturday morning, we were distributing two semi trucks of food to people in need, with 1,400 boxes on each truck. And we did that for 14 months.”
The USDA eventually ended that program, so the Dream Center now stocks an onsite emergency food pantry to provide nonperishables to families who have an immediate need, while those with ongoing needs are referred to an organization with a larger inventory. In recent months, the Smiths have also been working on their new program to provide clothing for the community, planned to start in October.
“This will be a clothing ministry for children in Title I schools in DeSoto County, which most of our county’s schools are,” Smith says. “In working with teachers, we discovered the most requested items were jeans, coats, and shoes, so those are the three we want to focus on.”
Two of the Dream Center’s core values are dignity and honor, so Smith stresses how important it is to provide kids with brand-new, not used, clothing items, with the tags still on, in a “first-class atmosphere” that families can visit to select their needed items.
Ultimately, however, Smith wants her organization to function as a resource center, connecting people who need help with the local organizations that can best meet their needs.
“We have a big homeless population in our county that nobody knows about,” Smith says. “So, while that might not be our main area of focus, we want to make sure people find those resources and are taken care of. There are people in need of jobs, and we know that companies need employees, so let’s connect the two. We want to be that resource center that, if you have a need and don’t know where to go, call us — we’ll help you find it. DeSoto County has so many great resources; we just all need to partner together and make it work.”
Since the Dream Center launched, Smith has heard stories — both heartbreaking and uplifting — from the people she has helped. As people showed up to receive food distribution, staff would gather information to find more ways to help, asking about their needs and challenges.
“My husband and I are lifelong residents here, and DeSoto County is such a beautiful place that we forget, because we don’t see it every day, the homelessness or hunger,” she says. “But it’s there. We partner with the DeSoto County school systems heavily, and I’ve gotten a call every week from a social worker that a kid is hungry in the classroom. We want those people to know they are valued and worthy, and break the chain of poverty and the poverty mindset.”
The Dream Center is funded strictly by donations and through unpaid volunteers. Hence, Smith stresses that additional help is always in demand: for medical personnel at the clinic, for helping children in the DeSoto Grace program, for food pantry workers to help organize and assemble food boxes, or for tackling administrative tasks and special projects.
The nonprofit has also been hosting Saturday block parties for the community, with sports, music, and family-friendly activities for all ages, concluded with fresh produce boxes distributed to attendees. Then, on Sunday mornings, Compel Church inside the Dream Center welcomes local kids to spread some extra love.
“It’s a great way for us to meet people in the community, to find out what the needs are and how we can help meet those needs,” Smith says. “So many people are in survival mode right now — so focused on the needs of today they can’t even think of the future. On our trucks, we have the phrase ‘Dream again.’ We want to help them with the needs of the moment, and help them get to the place where they’re not just worried about surviving today, they’re knowing that they can thrive and dream again for the future.”