Building dreams for all children

A common public misconception is that differently abled children will never hold a job and be forever dependant upon family members. Cara Cohn, a grant writer for Washington Vocational Services, disagrees. She and fellow co-workers created Dream Builders to prove it.

“We teach [the students] ‘your dream matters,’” Cohn said.

Five years ago, Cohn and her organization began studying the San Juan Island School District to see what was needed. The missing part, she said, was helping children connect their passions to a career path, particularly differently abled youth. Dream Builders slowly began to take form by delving into what matters most to the students. Once that was established, the organization reached out to community members working in careers that reflect those ideals and skill sets, then it connected the student to an adult worker.

Dream Builders is primarily funded by a grant through the Orcas Island Community Foundation, Cohn said, and the organization has applied once again this year for funding through 2020. It has also received grants from the San Juan Island Community Foundation in the past.

The organization is active in the San Juan, Orcas and Lopez school districts.

Cohn explained that the first step of Dream Builders while working with the student is identifying what motivates them, why they get out of bed each morning. Once that is accomplished, Dream Builders connects the child with adults working in a related field. By the time the student reaches eighth grade, they should have a dream map, according to Cohn, laying out a step-by-step process to achieve their goal.

For example, Mona, a student on Orcas, realized a primary motivating force for her centered around social justice and finding fairness in the world, Cohn said. Politics came to mind for Mona as a career path. Interviews with San Juan County Commissioner Rick Hughes and Lisa Byers, OPAL executive director, were arranged.

“The interviews were amazing,” Cohn said. “Mona brings out the very best of the people who she is with. She has ultimately become my teacher.”

Cohn and Mona have become active in the Orcas Women’s Coalition as well. The women’s coalition formed in 2016, focusing on advocating for civil rights, health care as well as the environment. It is, according to Cohn, a perfect venue for Mona to pursue another passion of fighting climate change.

“She is just so incredible; I have ended up basically donating my time to work with her,” Cohn said. That isn’t unusual. Dream Builders frequently follows its students long after they leave the program, in order to track their success and help provide them with necessary job skills Cohn noted. Those skills would vary depending upon the student. One of the goals of Dream Builders ultimately is to assist the individual in living a productive life and help grow the local economy.

“I think the fact we are asking for more funding is indicative of how successful Dream Builders has been,” she added.

Cohn also shared the story of a Lopez student named Levy, who was interested in structural engineering. His mentor passed away suddenly — a devastating loss for the child. Dream Builders was able to step in and connect him with another engineer on Lopez, Dave Thomas. The pair connected immediately.

“Levy was energized being around someone who spoke his language,” Cohn said, referring to like-minded connection.

Cohn said she would love to make Dream Builders available for all seventh and eighth grade students.

“It teaches self-determination and self-advocacy, something middle schoolers desperately need,” she explained.

For more information on Dream Builders and Washington Vocational Services, visit

“Everyone has gifts, and we want everyone to bring their gifts to the table,” Cohn said.