The program, implemented in conjunction with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is one of the largest, most extensive children's programs ever conducted. The children, from nearly 90 countries, were chosen based on written nominations from their parents and someone not a relative; the kids themselves also wrote 150-word descriptions of their community-service activities. The forms were distributed by McDonald's restaurants, schools, and community groups. Independent judging panels evaluated the kids' activities based on such criteria as their creativity, impact on the community and inspirational value.
"They've earned the title Millennium Dreamers because they had the vision to dream of a brighter future," Walt Disney Attractions President Paul Pressler said during a recognition ceremony held in the shadow of Epcot Center's landmark Spaceship Earth. "We recognize them today because they had the determination to put those dreams into action."
When he read the Millennium Dreamers' stories to his family, Pressler said, "My 10-year-old daughter -- who has served meals to the homeless, performed in a home for the elderly, and helped paint the homes of many needy families -- said, 'Dad, what else can we do?' It was then that I really understood the power of this program.
"McDonald's and Disney joined to create the Millennium Dreamers Global Recognition Program so we could applaud and reward the incredible deeds that they have accomplished. But even more important was to inspire others by sharing their stories with the world."
Those stories include that of Graciela Orantes of Uptown, 13, a seventh-grader at Kenwood Academy, who has spent three years tutoring other kids in English and math. Her parents are from Guatemala, and the family speaks Spanish at home, so although she was born here, Graciela didn't learn English till she went to school. "I know how hard it is to learn English," she said, "so I would like to make it easier for other kids."
In her nomination essay, she wrote, "I have made a difference in my community by helping children and helping to improve my neighborhood and its schools. Helping children is my main goal, because I like children and also because I know it is hard work in school.
"I have experienced the difficulties of learning and understanding English, while learning to read and write in Spanish at home, so I like to help children in any way I can. I help by tutoring Hispanic children who have just come to this country in English and math. I also mentor children, by giving them my support and opinions when they need them.
"I also help improve schools by helping to clean up their gardens and playgrounds. I have done this because I want better schools in my neighborhood. I do this by picking up garbage and recycling. I believe clean and safe schools help the children learn better."
Despite encouragement from her teachers, Graciela's efforts to help others have not always been easy, she said. "One problem is peer pressure, other kids who don't approve of what I do, or they're just jealous that the teachers let me have a tutoring program, that the teachers give me special privileges." However, it's worth it, she said, because of her students: "They're very grateful. I've tutored kids from Mexico, Ecuador and Japan. I basically teach them how to understand their schoolwork, the names of things." It's important to help others realize their potential, Graciela said, and helps her to achieve her own goals. "My parents, they couldn't complete their dreams, so I'm completing dreams for them," she said.
Averi Thomas Moore of Lincoln Park, 14, an eighth-grader at Francis Parker Academy, was also inspired by a parent, when her mom wound up on crutches one winter. "It was midwinter, and you know our Chicago winters. She fell on some ice and she triple-fractured her ankle. I was in second grade and we had an 'invention convention' at school."
Averi invented the crutch pouch, a purselike bag that suspends from crutches so that crutch users can carry things. The pouch has been featured in two movies and is on display at the Chicago Children's Museum.
Today, Averi is involved in community service through her school. "At the school, every two weeks, we do community service, and I help with church picnics," she said. "At my school, everyone has to participate in community service but most people don't put their hearts into it. I try to do my best at whichever site I'm at. Mostly I have been helping out in Head Start programs for underprivileged children."
She also plays soccer and basketball. In the future, she said, "I really want to be an architect. I like building things."
Jasmine Eason of Schorsch Village, 12, a sixth-grader at Metropolitan Primary Academy, is working on building a better world. "My millennium dream is to have races of all colors come together and become a strong community," she wrote in her essay. We also must have unity with one another. "We also must show respect toward our neighbors.
"I have done several things in my community to create unity and respect, she said. "I marched in two protest marches for justice and equality among people," she said. I" went to Mississippi to help teachers, and I went to a protest on behalf of the Decatur Seven (students who were expelled for fighting, under a zero-tolerance policy). I wanted them to go back to school. She doesn't agree with the zero-tolerance policy, which she thinks is too extreme, she said; she believes the students should get a second chance.
She also volunteers with Rainbow PUSH. "I have entered four oratorical contests, won two of them. She spoke on behalf of justice, and on better schools and better government. In a contest for Operation PUSH, she wrote about respect.
"As a youth and a member of Rainbow PUSH, I'm aware of what's occurring in this world. The leadership role I display today helps me to keep hope alive. I am the future. All eyes are on me. I must be responsible and take my proper place in society."
Her mom, Demetrice Griffin, noted that Jasmine spoke at the Dr. Martin Luther King breakfast this year, at which she introduced Rev. Jesse Jackson. "I'm so proud," Griffin said.
In her spare time, Jasmine likes to play the piano and practice karate.
Alison Guengerich of Edison Park, 15, a freshman at Resurrection High School, has taken a more local path to helping others. She has performed more than 100 hours of community service as a candystriper at Resurrection Medical Center on the Northwest Side.
According to her mom, Diane Guengerich, "She began working as a candystriper as a confirmation project when she was in elementary school at St. Juliana and she has continued these many hours."
Alison credits an advisor, Sue Matassa, with keeping her interested: "She makes volunteering fun," even when the activity itself is dull. Alison started out helping in the hospital's physical therapy department. "Basically, it's charts," she said. "You make charts, or you file charts or you destroy charts." She's also helped to organize various hospital drives to collect funds for the destitute.
"My goal to make myself a more caring and productive member of my community is being realized by my candystriping experience," she wrote in her essay. "My achievements can be measured in the additional time these fine hospital workers are able to give to patients and their families because of my efforts in the office."
Now, however, she has a new task she likes better than working with charts; she delivers flowers to patients. "It does seem to brighten their day," she said. It also helps to further another aim of Alison's: "Another goal of mine, as I walk through the hospital corridors every week is to make at least three people smile. I have learned that a smile is truly priceless and worth my effort!"
Despite her hours of community work, Alison keeps her grades high, said her beaming mother. "We're proud to say her class rank is 1 out of 250." Alison also likes to dance and is enrolled at the Next School of Dance. In the future, "I'd like to be somewhere in the medical field, to be able to help people."
Stephanie Gayle of Uptown, 15, also has her eyes on a medical future. On her application she wrote, "My goal is to become a doctor specializing in inner-city medicine. I would like to develop programs to make America a drug-free society." On the other hand, she said, "I might want to go into nursing and business."
Through a special arrangement, Stephanie attends Lyons Township High School in LaGrange, where she is a sophomore. Despite her long commute to school, she spends a lot of time on community service.
At Uptown Baptist Church, Stephanie helps in the Kids' Church, getting the snacks ready for younger children and plays games with the children.
"I help in the community by volunteering at the nursing home and at the Salvation Army on Monday nights," she said. "I help serve dinner at a soup kitchen on the weekends. I volunteer at a homeless shelter. I help prepare meals." She has been recognized with the Urban Community Service Award and the Union League Most Valuable Person Award.
When she's not volunteering or commuting, Stephanie said, "I like to hang out with my friends, go to movies and go skating."
Yaunette Douglas of Uptown, 15, a sophomore at St. Scholastica High School, is Stephanie's cousin. Like her cousin, Yaunette spends a lot of her time commuting, in her case between the nearby Uptown Baptist Church, where she is a student leader whose role is to minister to other students, "to bring them closer to God," and St. Augustine African Orthodox Church on the South Side, where she was baptized. There, she sings in the choir and helps in the church's efforts to feed the less fortunate, such as at a dinner where Yaunette serves each Thanksgiving, which she said is the community-service activity she enjoys most: "When I first started ... there was one turkey and it fed 15 people. This year over 400 people were fed."
She also works with the Chicago Urban League. In her application, she wrote, "I am an independent black female that enjoys helping others who need that extra push in life."
She sees many such people in her neighborhood. "In Uptown, there are many homeless, lost and confused individuals. As a result of seeing this daily, I have involved myself in these productive, trouble-free activities."
Brimming with self-confidence and a wide smile, Yaunette has no doubts about her future. "I have it set out," she said. "I'm going to go to MIT, Howard or Spellman. I'm going to be a computer tech and analyst. Then I'm going go into music communications and production. Then, I'll have two kids."
But, meanwhile, she also finds time for typical teen-age fun. "I love to talk on the phone," she said. "I like to go to the rink and go to the movies. I like being with my friends and listening to them. I don't think they realize that."
Disney went all out to show the young Ambassadors a good time, starting events off at the Magic Kingdom with a special fireworks show over Cinderella's Castle and a private party in Fantasyland and Tomorrowland after the park closed to the public. An exclusive presentation of the Main Street Electrical Parade drew many oohs and ahhs.
The kids were also treated to a magical evening at Epcot Center, with dinner at one of the ethnic restaurants of the World Showcase and a viewing of the wonderful "Tapestry of Nations" parade of fantastical giant puppets the park is featuring this year, followed by the new "IllumiNations 2000 -- Reflections of Earth" fireworks show. Another evening featured a private party at the Disney-MGM Studios theme park, with a concert and more fireworks.
The Millennium Dreamers had the opportunity to participate in a variety of educational activities, as well, from meeting animal keepers during a backstage safari at Disney's Animal Kingdom or behind the scenes of the world's largest man-made aquarium at Epcot Center's The Living Seas, to seminars explaining the physics behind roller coasters, to historical programs about Florida and the United States.
Disney and McDonald's officials spoke at recognition ceremonies, featuring a keynote address from actor and director Christopher Reeve. Reeve, best known for his film role as Superman up until a 1995 accident left him paralyzed, praised the children as "a new and greater hero." "Now I think that a hero is an ordinary individual who, by necessity or by inspiration, does extraordinary things," Reeve said.
"I want to commend you for everything you've done to lead the way into a new era of compassion, of generosity, and the recognition that, even though we may not know each other, not of us are strangers. We are all connected simply by being human."
A symposium, "The Power of One," moderated by ABC news anchor Jack Ford, told some of the Millennium Dreamers' stories and featured a multicultural, cross-generational discussion of what inspires ordinary children to do exceptional things. Besides several of the children, speakers included Ken Barun, president and CEO of Ronald McDonald House charities; actor LeVar Burton of PBS's "Reading Rainbow"; 1999 Teacher of the Year Teri Linder; several UNESCO officials and Goodwill Ambassadors, including Dr. Cheik Diarra, interplanetary navigator of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory; and Dr. Sally Ride, America's first female astronaut in space and the author of children's science books.
Besides the ceremonies and official events, the young people also got to spend time visiting the various Disney attractions. Proving that kids are kids, rides on Space Mountain, the Magic Kingdom's thrilling roller coaster, got thumbs up as a favorite activity.
"I'm having a great time," Averi Thomas Moore said. "I went on Space Mountain yesterday, and that was fun, and the (Magic Kingdom Main Street Electrical) parade was great."
"It's definitely the best vacation I've ever been on," enthused Alison Guengerich, high praise from a frequent Disney World visitor. ("We typify the Disney/McDonald's family," her mom said.) Perhaps that's why, rather than roller coasters, Alison's favorite part of the experience was "mingling with people from the different parts of the world."
Although she'd also been to Walt Disney World before, Yaunette Douglas said, "This is something special, with closing the parks and everything. All this attention. I love attention." And, she said, I knew there were children working around the world to do something. I didn't know it was this much." Besides that, "I enjoy Space Mountain and just hanging out with my cousin Stephanie."
Cousin Stephanie Gayle's favorite activity during the three-day event was the Millennium Dreamers recognition ceremony. "And the parade -- but that (ceremony) was the best thing," she said.
Graciela Orantes loved it all. "It's my first time here and I'm so glad," she said. "I liked everything! It's like a world of fantasy and imagination."