Last spring, O, The Oprah Magazine posted an invitation on Oprah.com: Tell us your dream, and if our judges love it, we'll connect you to someone who can make it a reality. After reading more than 1,600 inspiring, exhilarating, original responses, we chose six winners who captured our imagination and admiration.
This month, we update you on our fabulous O, The Oprah Magazine Big-Dream winners—and the projects that are making a difference!
Resources for You Whether or not you entered the Big-Dream Contest, you may be closer than you think to making your great ideas happen! These exclusive resources can help. Erika Schneider Wagner, South Dakota Full-time mother and volunteer, 31
Her dream: Schneider lives on the Yankton Sioux Indian reservation, where artistic opportunities for children are "slim to none," she says. "The Native American community has a rich cultural life, but the expression of this beauty is thwarted by poverty and a sense of hopelessness." Determined to make a change, she founded a community theater. But with no budget, the group planned to use stage lights made of coffee cans and a karaoke machine as a sound system.
How we made the connection: The role of Good Samaritan was played by not one but an entire city of generous theaters: As soon as the League of Chicago Theatres heard about Schneider's search for equipment, they sent out a call to their members and within days had offers of costumes from the Victory Gardens Theater; scenery from Scenic View; curtains from the Becker family at Grand Stage/Art Drapery Studio; a sound system from TimeLine Theatre; and a director from Thirsty Theater volunteering his time.
"This is the best blessing I could have imagined," says Schneider, who is busy with cast and crew in rehearsals for Tunkasina, a play that takes its title from the Dakota word for grandfather.
Progress: Erika Schneider's first show, Tunkasina, We Are All Related, is set to open. No matter what, Schneider insists, the show will go on. And days of clearing, cleaning, and painting have turned a donated room into a respectable stage, especially after curtains and scenery arrived from Scenic View, of Chicago, through a Big-Dream connection to the League of Chicago Theatres. "This is one of the first arts projects in our area that involves the white and Native American communities working together," says Schneider. "And that is a big step here."
As the three-night run proceeds, more Big-Dream connections secure the theater's future. Steven and Cindy Noble, who own Flood Music in Sioux Falls, donate a soundboard; TMG, an electronics store, offers spotlights. And other futures take hold: Julia Marshall, 20, a cast member who'd dropped out of high school, decides to go back. Being in the play inspired her to "get involved again," she says. "I'd like to study drama at college." Everyone is fired up. Exhausted, Schneider picks up costumes. "It started out as our dream," she says, beaming. "Now it's their dream."
Liza Ciano Burlington, Vermont Co-owner of Yoga Vermont studio and co-creator of Saka yoga bags, 30
Her dream: Ciano and business partner Kathy McNames know how unwieldy it can be to carry yoga mats, so they designed and produced a tote bag with a special pouch to hold a mat. Response was terrific—the problem was keeping up with demand. "We're trying to make the jump from small company to reaching a national market," Ciano wrote.
How we made the connection: Sarah Shaw, owner and designer of Sarah Shaw handbags, had found herself racing to meet demand when, early in her career, she received an unexpected order for 800 bags. "It's a nice problem to have," says Shaw, "but it leaves you scrambling."
She made the commitment to expand her business and today sells her bags to over 500 stores. With the wisdom of experience, she counseled Ciano on managing production and supply. You can find Ciano's yoga bags ($75) at www.sakayoga.com.
Progress: Liza Ciano, of Burlington, Vermont, co-creator of Saka Yoga Bags, needed help keeping her suddenly successful company at top speed. She and business partner Kathy McNames realized that they needed a more reliable manufacturer."We were frustrated," she says, "but things are on track now." We connected her with designer Sarah Shaw, whose handbag company has temporarily ceased production. "It was really useful," Ciano says. "She shared her hard-won wisdom with us." (To see a photo of one of her bags, go to sakayoga.com.)
Janas Jackson Memphis Communications specialist, 49
Her dream: Last fall Jackson volunteered at a Memphis public high school and was shocked by the number of students who had trouble with basic reading and writing skills. "Sixty-four of Tennessee's 98 lowest-performing schools are in Memphis," she says. "Kids are falling through the cracks." With the dream of organizing a volunteer task force of 500 professionals and retirees to tutor students at risk, Jackson wrote to O, The Oprah Magazine in search of a mentor.
How we made the connection: Carmen Vega-Rivera, executive director of the East Harlem Tutorial Program, runs exactly the sort of community outreach program in New York that Jackson wants to create in Memphis.
During a marathon phone conference, Vega-Rivera worked with Jackson to develop a plan to organize the Memphis 500. "It's ambitious, but I like a challenge," Jackson says.
Progress: Janas Jackson had a great idea: launching a volunteer tutoring task force in Memphis schools. But she wasn't sure where to start. We hooked her up with Carmen Vega-Rivera, executive director of New York's East Harlem Tutorial Program. "Carmen encouraged me to meet with a local organization called Our Children/Our Future," Jackson says. "Now I'm recruiting for them. Through my employer, FedEx, I've helped place over 50 volunteers. I couldn't be happier."
Nadine Skuble San Francisco Financial investor, 29
Her dream: "Did you ever want to follow your passion into another field of work?" Skuble asked O, The Oprah Magazine, summarizing her idea for a television series that teaches young women about the many paths available to them.
"Each program would show a day in the life of a different woman—a criminal profiler or a firefighter, for example—so viewers could learn what it takes to enter and succeed in a given career."
How we made the connection: Any hopeful television writer will tell you the hardest part is getting your foot in the door. Which is why Skuble was delighted when Robert Wesley Branch, an executive producer at the Discovery Channel, agreed to meet with her.
Who knows? The story of a financial investor turned television show creator could be the topic of Skuble's first show. We'll keep you posted.
Progress: Nadine Skuble hoped to find a producer for the television series she'd like to write, about women and their careers. We put her in touch with Discovery Channel executive producer Robert Wesley Branch, who helped her refine her idea. "He gave me great advice on pitching the show," says Skuble. She has decided to partner with an old friend who runs a production company.
Monica Clark Staten Island, New York Operations analyst, 34
Her dream: In search of selections for her book club, Clark became frustrated by the lack of bookstores for African-Americans in her area: "I kept asking myself, Isn't there a place for readers like me?"
Dreaming big, Clark decided to fill the void by opening her own bookstore—though having never run a business, she was hungry for entrepreneurial guidance.
How we made the connection: Felecia Wintons, owner of Books for Thought in Tampa, is a trailblazer in the world of African-American bookselling and had plenty of hard-won advice to share with Clark.
After talking to Wintons about publishers, distributors, and the thrill of starting a business—plus weeks of planning on her own—Clark is set to open Read About It in Staten Island this September.
Progress: Monica Clark wanted to open a bookstore for African-American readers in her New York neighborhood. We introduced her to Felecia Wintons, the owner of Books for Thought in Tampa. She advised Clark to make sure the demand was there (it was) and to accumulate money to rent a storefront (she is) before creating the space she envisions (she will). For the time being, Clark is running a mail-order book business from home. She arranged to meet with Robert Stein, an advisor at the Small Business Development Center at the College of Staten Island, for help with a business plan. "I believe in Miracles, but can face reality," Clark says.
Gretchen Bernatz Ellwood City, Pennsylvania Student, 24
Her dream: "I've been studying the trumpet since I was 12, and for as long as I can remember I've wanted to play with a professional orchestra," Bernatz wrote to O, The Oprah Magazine.
Would this trumpeter's turn at center stage change the world or save lives? Nah. But would it be fun? You bet.
How we made the connection: Just 40 miles from Bernatz's house is Pittsburgh Symphony Heinz Hall, where composer-conductor Marvin Hamlisch graciously invited Bernatz to join his horn section on October 10, 2002, for a PNC/Pittsburgh Symphony Pops concert.
Bernatz was speechless when O, The Oprah Magazine called with the news but soon caught her breath so she could practice for her debut.
Progress: Gretchen Bernatz longed to play the trumpet with a professional orchestra. We made a call to Marvin Hamlisch, principal conductor of the PNC/Pittsburgh Symphony Pops, and in October she performed with the group. "It was so fantastic," says Bernatz, of Ellwood City, Pennsylvania. "Mr. Hamlisch introduced me to the audience, and my teacher surprised me by coming to watch." Bernatz plans to audition for local symphonies in the spring.