Nestled in the side corner of the South 40 Community Garden on East South Street in North Long Beach are four 10-foot by 10-foot lots where kale, strawberries, watermelons, tomatoes and carrots are being grown.
“The wine barrels over there filled with tomatoes … they were donated by Home Depot and those other wine barrels were donated by Lowe’s,” says Sheila Grantham, the founder and director of Adventures to Dreams.
“This is where we are and this is what we do.”
Adventures to Dreams is a child enrichment program designed to inspire and empower young minds ages 4-13 who live in at-risk communities by exposing them to education and cultural activities. With a focus on cooking, gardening, health, technology and life skills, Grantham integrates educational tools, hands-on learning, self-esteem activities, guest speakers, industry professionals and field trips to motivate and enhance children’s lives.
“I was an educator in Los Angeles at the time when I met my first student, Jaden,” Grantham says. “He was 4 at the time and he talked about the dangers of living in the projects. I asked the kids in class what do they do on the weekends and Jaden explained to me that he didn’t go outside; he stayed inside because it was too dangerous. So I came home and I decided I needed to start a program on Saturdays for kids. I called my daughter and she said, ‘Mom, it’s going to take money,’ and I said ‘no, no, no, I should be able to do this.’ It’s grown since then. I started with six or seven kids and I have like 25 now.”
Grantham has been a childhood educator for more than 20 years. She graduated from Long Beach State in 2012 — “with many years of starting and stopping” — with a bachelor’s degree in child development and family studies.
She calls herself a visionary. Children are her No. 1 priority and she believes that children can achieve their own destiny and that’s important to her.
“If you don’t have someone who is going the extra mile for them, how are they going to know,” she says. “It’s important to be a doer and not a talker.”
Grantham’s goal to start Adventures to Dreams has had some nightmarish components.
She is a two-time breast cancer survivor. Her first bout was in 2004, but it returned in 2013, in a more aggressive form. After almost two years of chemotherapy, she has continued to be cancer-free.
Getting the word out about Adventures to Dreams hasn’t been easy, either. Grantham started with only her retirement savings and no donors. She initiated her message at her church — the Family of Faith Christian Center in Long Beach. A man in the congregation, who teaches at a school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, invited her to the school’s back-to-school night.
“I met some families — all from L.A. — and you know, the parents trusted me in bringing their kids to Long Beach and just doing activities,” she says. “That was in 2015, during the last part of my chemo. It was quite challenging but I decided I wanted to do this. I wanted to get these kids out on the weekends. They need to have something to do.”
Every third Saturday, Grantham would go to Los Angeles to pick up the kids. A couple of times, she rented a van because all the kids wouldn’t fit in her car.
She hosted paint sessions in the park, pizza parties at local pizza venues, she took field trips to various places including the Aquarium of the Pacific and museums.
“We did everything in Long Beach because that’s what I knew; that was my city and I wanted them to see outside the walls of where they lived and let them know there is somewhere else,” she says. “And I’ve always made Long Beach where we do everything pretty much.”
Noticing the need for the children to learn more about healthy eating, she launched a gardening program in 2016 and that’s where Joe Corso, a master gardener with Long Beach Organics, came into the picture.
“We have a garden downtown at Seventh and Chestnut,” Corso recalls, “and we had a skunk every night that would go in our compost and crawl under her gate. So, Sheila called Long Beach Organic saying she wants something done about the skunk. We got started talking about the garden and she said this would be great for my Adventure kids but the downtown lot was too small. So we moved her to this lot where the plots are bigger.”
“It’s been so good for the kids to be in a garden,” Grantham says. “When kids see food grow, they have a different relationship with food. It’s a lifelong thing. Parents tell me that. It’s so good for kids to see where the food come from.”
Two years ago, Grantham won a Villager Award for her work with children. Dr. Gloria Willingham-Toure, founder of the award, says that after talking with Grantham, she knew that Grantham was a woman destined to make a difference beyond measure.
“It was good to be able to receive recognition for doing something good for the community and kids,” Grantham says.
“Sheila’s story is one of unselfish commitment to providing opportunities,” Willingham-Toure says. “I first met Sheila in 2015. She was recovering from a recurrent bout with cancer. Despite her health challenges at the time, she was consumed with a desire to be a catalyst for change in the lives of children who lived in low income public housing.”
Additionally, Willingham-Toure’s foundation, The Village Projects, was a fiscal sponsor for Adventures to Dreams until Grantham obtained 501(c)(3) nonprofit status last year.
But even with nonprofit status, Grantham’s program has flown under the radar. Grants and donations have been few and far between. She is hoping things will improve.
“I have used pretty much all of my retirement doing this because I could not get anybody to take what I was doing seriously,” she says, “but I believe this year will be better.”
Already, Grantham has received a call from the Long Beach Community Foundation, which saw her website (adventurestodreams.org) and got someone to donate $2,500. Whole Foods chipped in with a small donation, too.
But the money goes fast; many parents don’t have cars, so Grantham sends Lyft to pick up parents and kids to bring them to the activities. She says she has invited city officials again and again to come see what the program is about, but no one has responded.
“It’s disheartening,” she says. “I really want this program to get recognized. I keep track of things and a lot of program that have come up after me are getting funding and I’m like, ‘I was around before you,’ and I can’t get recognized and why is that? I can’t figure that part out.”
But next month, she is scheduled to meet with Long Beach Parks, Recreation and Marine officials. They told Grantham they have a downtown location for her with a larger area to do gardening.
A fundraiser is being planned from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Oct. 12 at Caesar Chavez Park with the goal of getting a laptop for each of her kids — it’s a goal that Grantham has been trying to achieve for more than a year. She has started a GoFundMe.com page for the laptops https://www.gofundme.com/f/busy-hands-busy-minds with a goal of $4,000. So far, only $10 has been raised.
“I love the city that I live in and I want everybody to know about this city and know that there are great things in this city so I bring them here,” Grantham says. “People say great things about the program and that’s what makes it more worthwhile getting out there.
“I just know this is our year.”