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After a difficult year, West Side eighth graders get surprise gifts before heading into summer and high school

Computer tablets, sneakers and other goodies came courtesy of the Englewood non-profit, Dion’s Chicago Dream

Teasia Sanford smiles as she receives a Dream Star Capsule from Dion’s Chicago Dream on Monday, which presented the capsules to the 2021 8th-grade graduates at Jensen Miller Scholastic Academy at 3030 W. Harrison St. on the West Side.
Teasia Sanford smiles as she receives a Dream Star Capsule from Dion’s Chicago Dream on Monday, which presented the capsules to the 2021 8th-grade graduates at Jensen Miller Scholastic Academy at 3030 W. Harrison St. on the West Side.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

It’s been a grueling year for the eighth graders at Jensen Miller Scholastic Academy on the West Side.

“Everything has been canceled for them — you’re talking about luncheons, you’re talking about opportunities to do autograph books. This is the first time they’ve all been together for the whole school year,” said Jensen Principal Chinyere Okafor-Conley.

On Monday, while trying to be heard above the roar of the Eisenhower Expressway traffic, Okafor-Conley urged the 44 soon-to-be graduates to dream big and to “put on your life boxing gloves.”

But in addition to all that, each eighth grader also got a surprise — a box filled with everything from a computer tablet to a pair of sneakers and, for the salutatorian and valedictorian, a Chromebook computer.

The gifts came courtesy of Dion’s Chicago Dream, an Englewood-based nonprofit.

Dion Dawson, president and CEO of Dion’s Chicago Dream, presents the non-profit’s first-annual Dream Star Capsule to the 2021 8th-grade graduates at Jensen Miller Scholastic Academy at 3030 W. Harrison St. on the West Side on Monday.
Dion Dawson, president and CEO of Dion’s Chicago Dream, presents the non-profit’s first-annual Dream Star Capsule to the 2021 8th-grade graduates at Jensen Miller Scholastic Academy at 3030 W. Harrison St. on the West Side on Monday.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

“It’s something we want to give these kids to show them that not only are we proud of them, we love them and we appreciate them, ... but also graduating eighth grade is a big deal,” said Dion Dawson, the nonprofit’s president/CEO.

Yahmien Conner, 14, was delighted with her gifts. The tablet should come in handy. She’s writing a fantasy novel. She’s an artist. too, but she wants to be a veterinarian — helping save exotic creatures from extinction.

“Man, it’s been stressful a lot,” she said, reflecting on the almost-complete academic year. “School has been hard, especially with the internet because the internet can get kind of funny. But my family has helped me pull through it. ... And the teachers have especially been a big help.”

Conner has been studying remotely and Monday was only the second time she’d been with her classmates in person — the first time being on picture day a couple of months ago, she said.

As she said her long goodbye, Okafor-Conley told the graduates she planned to give them each her personal cellphone — just in case they needed some post-graduation help.

“If you work, work, work, there is nothing you can’t do,” she said.

Teasia Sanford smiles with classmates after receiving a Dream Star Capsule on Monday from Dion’s Chicago Dream, which presented the capsules to the 2021 8th-grade graduates at Jensen Miller Scholastic Academy at 3030 W. Harrison St. on the West Side.
Teasia Sanford smiles with classmates after receiving a Dream Star Capsule on Monday from Dion’s Chicago Dream, which presented the capsules to the 2021 8th-grade graduates at Jensen Miller Scholastic Academy at 3030 W. Harrison St. on the West Side.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times