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IRVINE, Calif. – For more than three decades, I Have A Dream Foundation – Los Angeles (IHADLA) has empowered at-risk young people and their families with programming and resources for employment and life success.

Janell Lewis, who began with IHADLA as a Master of Social Work (MSW) intern in 2013 from the University of Southern California (USC), emphasizing the Community Organization, Planning, and Administration (COPA) concentration and now serves as Executive Director, is one of the many individuals further that mission. And it is because of those efforts that she was recently recognized as the Rams' sixth "pLAymaker" honoree.

Lewis and IHADLA were surprised with a $5,000 check from The Los Angeles Rams Foundation at training camp earlier this month.

"To be recognized as a playmaker by the Rams means everything, because it tells me that we're doing good work and it's getting noticed," Lewis said earlier this month. "And I appreciate the Rams for giving us the exposure and the opportunity to share about the work that we do, because we've done it for 35 years now."

Founded in 1987 the Whittier Family Foundations, IHADLA is the second affiliate of the national I Have A Dream Foundation founded by New York businessman Eugene Lang in 1981. It aims to provide its Dreamer Scholars with "the academic, socio-emotional and cultural resources to help them develop the skills needed to graduate from high school and to and through a college education," according to its website.

In those 30-plus years since its founding, the educational non-profit has impacted more than 11,500 individuals from under-resourced communities including Dreamer Scholars and their families, with many Dreamer alumni returning to assist their communities.

Uniquely among educational non-profits, IHADA is the only academic, socio-emotional and family assistance program that is in school, after school, year-round, and long-term (10-plus years), according to its website. Lewis said IHADLA's goal is supporting BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) students predominantly, and starts serving them in elementary school, remaining with them all the way through high school graduation and whatever post-secondary education plans they have.

"We give them up to $8,000 per student," Lewis said. "And what makes us really unique is we don't pick and choose the students. We support students, we meet them where they're at, and not only support them, but provide support to their families as well. That means their siblings and their parents."

Lewis oversees the development, operations, and oversight of IHADLA programs and staff, and also works directly with the USC Master of Social Work interns who work with the non-profit. Together, they work to expose the barriers surrounding program participants and their families.

Lewis also had extensive experience managing people and programs prior to joining IHADLA's executive team in October 2020, including facilitating comprehensive clinical and academic support for students in elementary through post-secondary education.

Lewis personal mission aligns with the organization's, in that she wants to educate on systemic barriers impacting the underserved to empower community members to reach their full potential. Thus, to her, inspire change means doing this very program.

"This program is comprehensive," Lewis said. "I don't know another program that doesn't pick and choose students. It's not merit based, that gives an educational award, and also provides academic support, social and emotional development, college and career readiness, health and wellness, all in steam-centered curriculum. So that is inspiring change, because it's giving access to under-represented students that need it the most. Your zip code shouldn't determine your success rate, and we know statistically that it does."

Along those same lines, Lewis suggests to those looking to inspire change in their own communities to find out what the needs are in their own communities.

"Education equity is huge everywhere. It's a problem that everybody faces no matter where they live," Lewis said. "So help schools. Get connected to non-profit organizations like we are we do. By the way, I Have A Dream is a national organization spread across the U.S. And so even though we're independent 501(c)(3), we all have the mission of educating students and helping them reach their highest potential."

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