It took a mid-career shift to get James DiCosmo back on the baseball diamond. After nearly five years working on Wall Street during The Great Recession, the former Williams College second baseman found himself wanting “to do more.” James quit his job, took some time off, and traveled; however, it didn’t take long for him to connect with a local baseball team in the South Bronx where one of his good friends was a coach with an organization called Harlem RBI.
James became a volunteer coach, and soon after, he found himself sitting down for coffee with Harlem RBI’s Chief Operating Officer to discuss his future. “I was really interested in trying to use my skill set to see if I could do something that I felt passionate about,” James said. “I joke that I just showed up one day and I never left, because Harlem RBI checked a lot of those boxes for me.”
Harlem RBI was founded in 1991, when a group of volunteers transformed an abandoned, garbage-strewn lot into two baseball diamonds for the youth of East Harlem. Over the years, the organization began to address the greater needs of its community, including low literacy and high school graduation rates, through its summer and afterschool enrichment programs. As graduation rates improved and college acceptance rates increased, the nonprofit decided that it needed to expand its work from out-of-school programming: it decided to launch a charter school.
DREAM Charter School was founded in 2008, and in 2015, the organization cut the ribbon at its founding school location: 1991 Second Avenue. It was the first public school building constructed in East Harlem in nearly 50 years. In 2017, a year after DREAM Charter School graduated its first eighth-grade class, Harlem RBI and DREAM Charter School combined and rebranded themselves under one banner: DREAM. Today, more than 30 years after it was created on that abandoned lot in East Harlem, DREAM is a network of public charter schools and community youth development programs striving to level the playing field for all children and to help them become lifelong learners.
James joined the organization in March 2015, and today he’s the Managing Director of Finance and Administration, where he leads DREAM’s fiscal strategy. It’s a role that keeps him very busy, but it’s also a role that he finds greatly rewarding, especially working alongside his team, one of the longest-tenured in the organization, and to whom he attributes the bulk of his department’s successes. James describes his colleagues as selfless, hardworking, and high-performing, and according to him, the amount that DREAM’s team cares about the organization and its mission is palpable. “One of our maxims is DREAM is family,” he said. “That’s very much a mantra that we live by, because that’s what these young people deserve: to have caring adults in their lives as much as a rigorous academic schedule.”
A Pandemic, And A Dream Financial Partner
That mantra was put to the test on Friday, March 13, 2020, when, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, DREAM’s management team had to sit down and make the decision to send everybody home for an undetermined amount of time. According to James, at that point, DREAM’s future — and the futures of the students, families, community members, and employees — was anything but certain.
However, despite the uncertainties, DREAM didn’t give up on its students. Although its schools closed on that Friday, remote classes began the following Monday. In the months that followed, things didn’t become any easier; however, during that time, DREAM distributed 1,200 Chromebooks and internet hotspots to its students. Additionally, the nonprofit established free weekly food distributions, handing out more than 11,000 bags of fresh produce and nonperishable goods to its families. DREAM was also able to offer $250,000 in direct financial aid for families to use for basic needs, such as rent, groceries, and bills. “The entire team made a Herculean effort to make it happen,” James said. “It was an incredibly big lift.”
Fortunately, DREAM didn’t have to make that lift alone. Instead, the nonprofit had the support of Carver Federal Savings Bank, which is also headquartered in Harlem. Carver has spent more than 73 years providing New Yorkers with access to capital and banking services, with a focus on Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises (MWBEs). Carver Federal Savings Bank is one of CNote’s Impact Cash partners. CNote invests Impact CashTM dollars in mission-driven and FDIC- and NCUA-insured CDFI partners like Carver Federal Savings Bank, generating returns on institutional investors’ cash allocations while supporting financially underserved communities across the country.
DREAM has a long banking history with Carver. For example, Carver provided financing for DREAM’s East Harlem Center for Living and Learning project, which included a 450-seat charter school, space to serve 1,800 kids in afterschool and summer programs, 89 units of affordable housing, and a revitalized public park. In April 2020, the bank once again stepped up for the nonprofit in a big way.
As most banks were struggling with how to navigate the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), Carver was able to secure $6 million in PPP loans for DREAM, which allowed the organization to keep everyone employed. In the following months, Carver also helped DREAM to make sure that those PPP loans were ultimately forgiven. With that money, DREAM was able to hire and to maintain enough staff to run both online and, come October 2020, in-person classes for its charter schools. DREAM also maintained its extended-day, extended-year model, including its free afterschool and summer programming, while creating a healthy and safe environment for its scholars and families.
As approximately 1.1 million youth in the New York City Department of Public Schools spent an entire year doing remote learning, Carver’s ongoing support allowed DREAM to weather many of the pandemic’s threats to education. “We’re proud of the decision that we made to support our young people and our community,” James said. “It was challenging, but we’re really grateful and fortunate to have been able to work with Carver to make it happen.”
DREAM Team, Big Dreams
Unsurprisingly, given its name, DREAM’s team dreams big. According to James, the nonprofit is working to double its $53 million annual budget, which means that it would also like to double the amount of youth it’s able to serve. Currently, across its six charter schools and afterschool and summer programming, DREAM serves more than 2,000 scholars in East Harlem and the South Bronx, with more than 330 full-time staff members, and hundreds of part-time employees. In the next decade, DREAM hopes to serve approximately 4,000 youth in its communities.
Last month, DREAM took another big step that will help bring its future dreams to fruition. The nonprofit cut the ribbon to its newest state-of-the-art school, located at 20 Bruckner Boulevard in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx. The 200,000-square-foot school is located on the East River in a 120-year-old ice house formerly owned by the Yankees’ owner who signed Babe Ruth’s contract. World-renowned Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye designed the transformation from ice house to school, which will serve 1,300 PreK-12 students.
Additionally, DREAM recently signed a lease for a 100,000-square-foot space in the Highbridge section of the South Bronx, which will become the permanent home of DREAM’s charter schools in that neighborhood in the coming years. According to James, expanding DREAM’s charter schools is a direct response to what the nonprofit’s community needs and wants. For example, in East Harlem, DREAM’s waitlist is more than 1,000 students. That means that until DREAM is able to grow its charter schools to meet that demand, the organization will continue to find ways to engage with community members, create deep relationships with families, and provide ongoing services to youth.
While James continues to see his work at DREAM through the lens of a former baseball-player-turned-Wall-Street trader, as a new father, his perspective has shifted. “As a parent, I think about what I want for my son,” James said, “and then I think about what we offer at DREAM. Every young person deserves access to all the resources needed to realize their potential, and that’s how we approach our work at DREAM.”
“We have incredibly talented people here at DREAM, and Carver has been a great community partner for us,” he said. “That’s what our communities deserve. I just hope that we can continue to support our communities and to inspire others to do so as well.”
- For over 73 years, Carver Federal Savings Bank’s mission has been to provide New Yorkers with access to capital and competitively priced banking solutions. Carver continues in its mission by providing access to capital and banking services with a focus on Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises (MWBEs) and consumers across the greater New York City region.
- DREAM serves more than 2,500 youth annually in East Harlem, the South Bronx, and Newark. Our unique program model uses team-based methods to provide a comprehensive, enriching experience for young people.
- CNote is a women-led investment platform that empowers individuals and institutions to invest locally to further economic equality, racial justice, gender equity, and address climate change.