The Dream Center Brings Holistic Health and Faith Through Hand-Up’s
Even in a pandemic, a faith-based nonprofit provides emergency help, hands-on training and necessities to South Carolina’s homeless.
“I want to be an addictions counselor.”
The words came out of the mouth of Destiny Carswell, a 38-year-old woman who had spent 29 of those years addicted to drugs, frequently homeless, and in and out of jail.
It was September of 2019. She had just walked through the doors of The Dream Center, a faith-based nonprofit that assists and trains the needy and homeless in Easley, SC. Carswell says that looking back, she can’t believe that was the first thing out of her mouth that day.
“It’s been a hard road,” Carswell said, sharing frankly about her sexual abuse at age 4 compounded with early drug and alcohol addictions, an abortion, court-ordered separation from her three sons, and a lifetime of unresolved pain. “My passion now is for recovery—mine and others. I know how broken these girls feel and how trapped you can be.”
That day in fall 2019, Carswell was at The Dream Center being evaluated for The Dream’s Center’s Opportunity Village, a year-long program for homeless women and children. Carswell had recently been arrested for crafting meth in her home—an abandoned trailer with no running water or electricity. The Dream Center’s Opportunity Village accepted Carswell and sent her on what she calls a life-transforming journey, which helped her become healthy physically, mentally, and spiritually so she could make plans for the rest of her life.
“I have been through all kinds of recovery programs—nothing worked until The Dream Center. This is where you go to rebuild your whole life,” Carswell said.
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The Dream Center, which was recognized in WORLD’s 2020 Hope Awards, was launched in 2012 by a team of seven volunteers, middle-aged men and women in the Greenville, S.C., area who wanted to tangibly live out their Christian faith. Since then, The Dream Center has served 3,471 people in crisis situations, and of those 1,530 have been homeless.*
“The Dream Center started from a conviction from reading the Word of God where we felt like we were not living what we professed to believe,” said Chris Wilson, executive director of the Dream Center. Wilson said the Dream Center’s grassroot start was a group of seven people from their church who got involved at a local soup kitchen in 2010. They met people, made friends and recognized vital needs. “Our community didn’t have a homeless shelter or a cold weather shelter,” she said.
Wilson said one of her biggest personal transformations was to debunk a lot of the myths she believed about the homeless right in her neighborhood.
“We were all thinking, there must not be any issues in our area because you don’t see homeless people standing on the street corners. But they are here! They are children and moms and grandmothers living in their cars,” she said, adding that she also used to believe if these people just worked harder, they could get jobs. As she grew in understanding, she realized that in order to get to that point, much mental and physical healing is first necessary.
The group of seven original volunteers, which included Wilson’s husband, Jim, who is now president of The Dream Center, decided to officially launch a nonprofit in 2012. They bought a building in 2013—formerly a school and “on the wrong side of the tracks,” Wilson said—that became a hub of resources for people struggling with poverty and homelessness.
Quickly, Wilson said the team recognized they were doing a disservice to the community by giving “handouts,” and they had to find a way to give “a hand-up.” For example, they helped many homeless people find jobs and free places to live that ended in job loss and evictions.
“We thought they were the problem and then we realized if you were sexually assaulted for 17 years and never had counseling or never been to the dentist and have an abscessed tooth, you can’t expect someone to receive that hand out and successfully manage it without help,” Wilson said. “They will go back to living in the car because they know how to live in their car. A repeated handout leads to entitlement, and the problem lies every time with the person giving the handout.”
Wilson said the team collaborated to create a Dream Dollar system in tandem with opening a Resale Store. They launched classes on parenting, finances, mental health, bible studies, nutrition, coping with grief, anger management—topics relevant to health and wellness. The Dream Dollars were redeemable at any of their now three Resale Stores, where they offer appliances, clothing, furniture—anything anyone would need to furnish an apartment and restart a life. Dream Dollars can also be used to wash and dry clothing or take showers. This encouraged personal wellness first and job success second, Wilson explained.
“People have real needs, their kid does not have shoes or school supplies,” Wilson said. “We couldn’t be the handout place—they had to have some skin in it.”
In 2016, 23 tiny houses were built on the campus of The Dream Center, each complete with a front porch and landscaping, facing a central green area. This program was launched out of what Wilson calls desperation to help the needy women and children in the Easley area. Twenty women and children are accepted once per year where they undergo a year of intense inpouring of love, teaching, coaching, and help—mentally, physically and spiritually, Wilson said.
In mid-January 2021, a new class of women and children arrived.
“The first few weeks are the hardest,” Carswell said, who graduated from Opportunity Village and is now on staff as a peer support specialist. You permanently give up any substances and even your cell phone for 12 weeks. “They really intensively pour into you the love of Jesus, you take daily classes, you meet with your spiritual counselors, you go to the YMCA to work out, you take financial and parenting classes, and earn Dream Dollars. After 12 weeks, you go into Discovery where you discover what you want to do for the rest of your life. Do you need to get your license back so you can drive to work? Do you want to go to college? Do you want to get in touch with your children?”
Carswell added that for her, Discovery affirmed that she wanted to be an addiction counselor, but to do that, she needed to apply for college, do paperwork for a pardon for her extensive criminal record, and to get back her driver’s license. She said she had assistance and support every step of the way.
“After 15 years, I got my license back—I thought I was going to never drive again!” She is currently taking part-time classes at Greenville Technical College to get her certification in addictions counseling.
Carswell said her role as a peer support specialist makes her feel alive. “I don’t have a huge degree, but I do have life experience.” Carswell said she doesn’t know if her criminal record will be pardoned—a key in the process to becoming an addictions counselor—but if not, she is fulfilled as a peer support specialist. In addition to that role, she also serves as director of the Dream Center’s Shine Soup Kitchen and program coordinator of a new sewing program.
“We have seen people so transformed it is mind blowing. They finally experienced that they have a purpose,” Wilson said. “Eleven years ago, I never would have known someone homeless, and now I am striving to be like them,” Wilson said, bringing up Deanna Smith, a graduate of The Dream Center’s Opportunity Village, who now serves as director for all The Resale Stores. “Three years ago, she was living in a tent using meth, and she is just phenomenal. It strengthens my faith. Only God can do this.”
Currently, The Dream Center runs through 13 full-time staff members and more than 300 volunteers. In addition to The Opportunity Village, The Dream Center has a Crisis Intervention Center where they offer one-time crisis intervention help to anyone who needs it. Immediate needs they meet include drug tests, showers, food boxes, a change of clothing, a ride—whatever is needed. People are invited back to earn Dream Dollars at any point.
Every person who comes through the door is treated according with value, Wilson said.
“We make eye contact, we call them by name,” Wilson said. “Hurt people hurt people, and we will show love and kindness even when they don’t show us kindness.”
This year, COVID-19 provided a challenge for The Dream Center. All resource centers and classes on campus were closed for 12 weeks.
“We closed to the public but not to our women and children living here at The Opportunity Village,” Wilson said. In addition, the Shine Soup Kitchen, which used to offer meals to 30 families five nights a week, has been scaled back to three nights due to funding issues.
Wilson said it’s God’s love that has strengthened them through the challenges of this past year. “I felt God tell me that even if you had all the knowledge in the world about COVID but no love, you have nothing. I don’t care what anyone’s COVID opinion is—we are going to show them visible love regardless. That has kept us unified during this time.”
Even with COVID, The Dream Center offered 425 classes this last year producing close to $12,000 of Dream Dollars that were earned and spent.
This year, Wilson said the dream is that the tiny houses, which are currently at half capacity, would be filled. The team at The Dream Center also plans to open their fourth Resale Store in February 2021. By the end of March, the team is launching an online store where Dream Dollars can be spent, Wilson said.
“I don’t think there is anyone more changed than me,” Wilson said of her experience at The Dream Center. “I have learned to see people the way Jesus sees them. In the past if I saw someone look homeless, I would have been scared or gone the other direction. Now I just want to know their story. As Christians, a lot of times we would rather throw money at a need and hope it goes away. But the reward is so rich and great if you can get your hands dirty because you can see the power of God firsthand.”
*The first two years, the team at The Dream Center did not have a system in place to track the number of homeless they helped. These numbers reflect those who have been helped since 2015.