Bristol native Erica Waller-Hill is over a decade into her journey of leading a nonprofit dedicated to enriching Bucks County’s young minds.
“I feel truly blessed,” Destined for a Dream’s CEO said from the desk of her Bristol Township office.
“I'm thankful to the parents for trusting us. We don't always get it right, but the parents have trusted us for 14 years or longer," Waller-Hill said.
The Destined for a Dream Foundation nonprofit organization serves Bucks County children and young adults ages 5 to 22, in any school district.
Waller-Hill's goal has been to build leadership, self-esteem, professional development and literacy skills among every student she tutors and mentors.
The dedicated local leader has made it a priority to help underprivileged and disadvantaged youth be successful in their academics and beyond, through tutoring, college visits and more.
“We’re not a sob story, we’re a success story," she said.
Decorating the sky-blue walls of the sun-lit, 385-square-foot tutoring studio — they were forced to temporarily downsize in 2015 — are emblems of that success, everywhere you turn.
Waller-Hill’s academic degrees and various colorful college pennants undoubtedly inspire all students who walk through the 24-year educator's doors.
“Every college you see in this room — we're missing about four — but we've been to every one,” said Waller-Hill of the flags representing Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, the University of Miami, Harvard University and several other schools.
Waller-Hill, who herself is pursuing a doctorate in special education leadership, has taken groups of around 35 to 40 students on 23 college tours over the years, allowing them to explore the possibilities of what comes after high school.
Of those tours, it’s number 15 — the sob story — that seems to remain ingrained in people’s memories.
Following a Harvard tour in Massachusetts on Feb. 2, 2013, Destined for a Dream slammed head-first into a nightmare.
Waller-Hill’s group of 35 were en route to Bristol when their bus hit an 10-foot overpass in Boston.
“That night, all 35 of us were at four different hospitals in Boston and didn't know who was dead or alive,” the motivational speaker and mom of two recalled. There were no deaths, but one student was left paralyzed.
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“(I caught) 15 kids off the roof of a bus, that's when that 6’4’’ stature came into play,” Waller-Hill said of her extraordinary height. By the sixth grade, she was already as many feet tall.
The crash, which received national news coverage, could’ve destroyed Waller-Hill in more ways than one, she shared.
“2013 should have taken the business out of business,” Waller-Hill said. “I say it should’ve taken me out because of my mental (health). I had a child that is paralyzed, and all 35 of us were injured — what happened?”
She added, “I deal with it every day.”
It’s her faith that continues to carry her through reliving the horrific moments nine years ago.
On her desk sits a daily reminder: A tattered, black King James version bible that was on the Calvary coach bus the night of the crash. Waller-Hill checked, but it belonged to none of her group.
“When we got to the DoubleTree (Hotel) that night in Boston on Soldiers Field Road, (an officer) came over to me and said, ‘We got everything off the bus, this was the final thing that we found, we don't know if it belongs to any of you guys,’” Waller-Hill said, guessing that the food-stained bible was left by previous passengers.
“It stays there,” she referred to the bible on her desk, “because it reminds me that our lives are so precious, and they could have been taken that night.”
The focus today remains, as it always has for the one-time shot put Olympic hopeful, on helping elevate the students she serves throughout Bucks County to the next level academically.
Many that come through Destined for a Dream’s doors are already scholars, Waller-Hill explains, but through initiatives including the ninth- through 12-grade Dream Academy and K-8 Literacy First program, the organization helps them continue to thrive.
“We're tutoring three days a week,” said Waller-Hill of the program targeted at younger students. “If you are not able to walk out of your school when you graduate, and you're unable to complete a sentence or read a sign, it becomes dangerous for you. When you're signing documents, you need to know what you're signing.”
The connection she shares with the students she tutors doesn’t just stop at high school graduation. Her dedicated students come back as volunteers from time to time, some now with families of their own.
“Some of those kids I taught at Armstrong (Middle School), I now have their kids here,” she said.
Destined for a Dream’s doors have remained open with the proper precautions in place since June 2020, with a brief virtual stint.
She’s heard that, amid the reported pandemic-related learning loss impacting students across the country, children who previously had a learning deficit will now be five more years behind. The statistic hurt her to learn.
“Because I don't see that here, meaning I'm trying to keep everyone on task, on task, on task,” said Waller-Hill.
The experienced educator noted that the special-needs population particularly struggled with virtual learning. “Before any type of pandemic they had to have in-person learning, but then you take a student who's challenged in various subject areas, you put them on Zoom, that's not going to work,” she said.
“Nobody's fault, right? This is the way our world was going,” she said.
In the meantime, the leader continues to help children of all backgrounds succeed. She says a common misconception of Destined for a Dream is that it only or mostly serves students of color.
“That's the stigma, the stereotype,” said Waller-Hill, a Black woman. “I don't like it. I don't want it. I serve everybody. I love all children, I want them all, because no matter what background and no matter what walks of life you come from, you have purpose.”
This article originally appeared on Bucks County Courier Times: Bristol's Destined for a Dream program celebrates 14 years of education