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Thousands of Minnesota girls find ways to fulfill their ‘dreams’ with help from Bancroft Foundation

Tyaneka Cage
© 2013 Steve Kotvis, f/goTyaneka Cage’s very first attempt at advocating for herself — articulating a dream and taking even a baby step toward it — changed her attitude profoundly.

Used as a noun, the word dream suggests something lofty — something hard to attain, and very special. As a verb, it can also refer to something as small and seemingly fleeting as a moment.

Tyaneka Cage, 18, can tell you the story of her very first dream, how it’s grown over time and changed her and her life. But she communicates just as much in telling about the first time she admitted she wanted something.

In 2005, Cage was an indifferent, inattentive girl about to make the jump to middle school in Minneapolis, where she seemed destined to become lost. The only thing that captured her attention was basketball, but she didn’t know any girls who played, much less girls her age.

A teacher who knew Cage’s family struggled offered to help her apply for a scholarship from a foundation started by polar explorer Ann Bancroft. Cage did it, but with a sense of detachment.

What changed when she learned $500 had been set aside to pay for her to train at a camp run by Gopher women’s basketball coach Pam Borton?

Change of attitude

“I mattered,” says Cage. “I never used to try anything. I felt like it was a waste of time. When I got it, I was shocked.”

Everything that came after was similarly dream-like. “I played with a lot of the girls who were there,” says Cage. “I talked to trainers and coaches and players.”

She wasn’t one of the talents Borton was scouting, but she wasn’t bad, either. “Doing some of the drills, I was pretty good at them,” she says. “I felt more confident, like I can do things.”

Cage’s very first attempt at advocating for herself — articulating a dream and taking even a baby step toward it — changed her attitude profoundly.

“I had never had a chance to do anything like that,” she says. “It gave me a reason to be in school. It made me actually want to go.”

When she saw Borton at various high school games, she knew the coach wasn’t there to watch her. But it didn’t matter. “She always spoke to me,” Cage says. “It was a good feeling that she remembered me.”

In the spring, Cage graduated from Roosevelt High — something she doubts her old self would have seen as worth accomplishing. This fall, she is on her way to Itasca Community College. Her new dream is to do well enough there to transfer to a Division One school in two years.

Dream, Play programs

Over the last 16 years, the Ann Bancroft Foundation (ABF) has made grants of up to $500 to thousands of Minnesota girls through its Dare to Dream and Let Me Play programs. Recipients have to apply for the funds; those whose experiences are funded have to report back.

The only thing the dreams have in common is that they tend to be surprising. Years ago, an applicant wanted helping paying for a trip to swim with the manatees in Florida.

She ended up swimming among hundreds, she reported in a letter afterward: “Thank you ABF, you over-delivered.” Today, she is a marine biologist.

Another wanted driver’s ed, at first a head-scratcher so far as dreams go. Turns out she was the oldest daughter in a large Southeast Asian immigrant family in which no one drove and no one spoke English. If she could get her license, all of their lives would change.

Lots want help having the kinds of experiences schools used to deliver, like dance or instrument lessons. One wanted to test-drive her fantasy of opening a bakery by taking a baking class. Another learned CPR.

“Dreams are the work of creating reality,” says Bancroft. “When you say you are funding experiences, well, who are you to say what someone’s dream is?”

Recipients have to report the results of their explorations, with the formats of their choosing ranging from collages to full-on presentations to the foundation’s board.

“There’s a huge percentage that don’t articulate very well,” says Bancroft. “The really young ones, like 8, may say, ‘I made a friend.’ You have to kind of read between the lines.”

Cage isn’t the only dreamer Bancroft and her all-volunteer team has kept in touch with — no small feat given that many are homeless or highly mobile. This summer they are in the process of creating a database so they can trace the arc of more dreams.

Self-advocacy, self-image

Bancroft’s dream to become a polar explorer, while audacious and highly unusual, really wasn’t so different from the ones in the grant applications. It began with the simple act of deciding to advocate for herself and ended up framing her self-image as capable and worthy. 

Bancroft started talking about becoming an expeditionary when she was 6. Her parents cheered when she pulled a book about Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance off the shelf and announced her dream.

Ann Bancroft
Shore to Shore Communications, Inc.Ann Bancroft

“I’m sure they didn’t expect me to actually go,” she says now, 27 years after becoming the first woman to reach the North Pole. “When I was a girl, people would say going to the poles is not a girl’s dream.”

After teaching for a few years first in St. Paul and then at Barton Open School in Minneapolis, Bancroft made her first polar trek, a 56-day Arctic dogsled trip with Will Steger.

For her 1993 journey with three other women across Antarctica’s ice to the South Pole, Bancroft formed a nonprofit, the All Women’s Expedition. For that trip, the group created a curriculum that allowed kids across the country to use her venture as a vehicle for learning about everything from science to women’s studies.

After Bancroft came back, the nonprofit’s board encouraged her to capitalize on her platform. Bancroft wanted the leverage but was a reluctant public figure. So much so the board ended up changing the nonprofit’s name while she was on an expedition. She can still only refer to it as “ABF.”

The curriculum had been successful, but didn’t feel like the ultimate goal. One night over dinner, one of the members pushed Bancroft: “We keep talking about dreams because you’ve been actualizing your childhood dreams.”

As they went around the table, they realized each had a story about themselves or about a kid they knew who had had an experience, usually between the ages of 10 and 12, that helped them to become who they were.

“We didn’t have a lot of money,” says Bancroft. “I’m not Lance Armstrong.”

But neither did the pivotal experiences the group was talking about cost a lot. At least not to middle-class families used to taking trips or paying for activities.

“The girls we seek out are typically girls who would never seek us out,” says Bancroft. “They’re disinterested, they’re kind of silent kids.”

An adult guide, someone who is not a family member, typically suggests to a girl that she might qualify for a grant. The mentors — often, teachers or youth workers in community centers — help the girls write the applications where they lay out their dream.

“That’s the beginning of learning to advocate for themselves,” says Bancroft.

The mentor submits a more detailed statement and then follows up to make sure recipients’ experiences actually happen. A separate fund, Let me Play, pays for sports, athletic or dance opportunities for girls ages 5 through high school.

Music lessons’  impact

In April, St. Paul City School eighth-graders Vanessa Yang and Lily Lee and a friend played “A Wrinkle in Time” on their guitars at the foundation’s annual fundraiser. They’d only had a handful of lessons, but no one was the wiser.

Friends had gotten grants from the foundation to pay for instrument lessons, but they still seemed like a long shot to Yang and Lee, both first-generation Hmong Americans.

They worked on their grant applications for two weeks. “I wrote about how being the daughter of two immigrants, it wouldn’t be so easy to have an opportunity like this,” says Lee. “We wrote it from the heart, and we made it long.”

“I did want music to be part of my life,” says Yang. “Without it, life would be boring. Plus now I have something in common with other kids.” 

Each got a grant to study after hours with their music teacher, Karen Carlson, and her husband, Adam Svec.

For Yang and Lee, the transformative moment took place on stage. “I thought it was a good shot to take,” says Yang. “We might mess up. One of us might start earlier or one of us might start later.”

When the moment arrived, determination took over, says Lee. “I was like, ‘Whatever, let’s do it,’ ” she recalls. “Let’s get over this stage fright.”

They played, the 500 people in attendance clapped and now other things just aren’t so scary anymore, the girls say. Including the new high schools they start in just a couple of weeks on opposite ends of St. Paul.  

“It’s going to be incredible when you’re playing in jazz band or you knock the socks off your music teacher because you already know the notes,” Carlson tells them as she watches them finger chords on a recent afternoon.

After Yang and Lee played the fundraiser, they were followed by a tennis player who secured an NCAA title bid, an environmental researcher whose exploration won her a job at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in northern Minnesota and a small army of tap dancers who staged a perfectly timed flash mob.

There was even a teen inspired by her time at Evergreen Dogsled Camp in Ely to begin dreaming about a trek to the North Pole.

What did Bancroft have to say to this? “We believe that every girl has a chance to live a wild, woolly dream.” A dream fit for a girl — or a whole bunch of them, young and older. 

“No great journey is done alone,” says Bancroft. “Every great explorer will tell you this. It just looks like we’re out there alone.”

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