Frankford: Q&A with Angenique Howard, founder of Unique Dreams Inc.

Angenique Howard, founder of Unique Dreams, outside of The Garsed Center. | Photo by Samantha Sullivan

Angenique Howard glows talking about Frankford. As children shoot hoops on the basketball court of the Garsed Center, she radiates pure pride in her community. 

Howard created her nonprofit, Unique Dreams, Inc. in 2019. Its mission is to empower youth and families in the Frankford community to strive for success and change. Unique Dreams offers a variety of community programs and services including therapeutic programs, recreational programs, educational enrichment, and other initiatives that aid residents. Howard recently completed a pilot program, P.U.S.H Through The Wire, which provided participants with career skills, such as a resume workshop and an introduction to various trades. Her latest endeavor is O.M.U.N.I.Q.U.E, a group that empowers young women that she created with her daughter. 

While Howard has been running a host of programs, she has never lost sight of her ultimate goal, reinstating the Garsed Center to its former status as a bustling community hub, like it was when she was growing up in Frankford. 

Eugene “Buddah” Thomas and Angenique Howard outside of The Garsed Center, where they host weekly meetings. | Photo by Samantha Sullivan

When did you start Unique Dreams, Inc. and where did the idea come from? 

I wanted to run a program and start it in a school and it actually started off as just Dreams, that was the name of it. That eventually changed. Unfortunately I was working at a residential facility and one of the students died. At the time I was in a middle management position, there was nothing I could do, there was nothing anybody could really do, but I felt at that time I wouldn’t be able to make change in that position. So I decided from there that this needs to be more than a program, this needs to be a full organization. I had been thinking about this building [The Garsed Center] for years, many, many years, since I was about 19 to be honest. I used to live next door, so when it shut down I was like “oh my God this might be an opportunity.” But it just wasn’t good timing. It was purchased by the current building developer and one Sunday I was riding by here and he was outside cleaning up. I stopped and asked him what he was doing with the building and he didn’t really have a clear direction. I told him about the program, the idea that I had for Frankford, the fact that I used to live in Frankford and work in Frankford, so he and I just sort of built a business relationship from there. Over the last three years, we’ve partnered on filling the space and bringing in other nonprofits. Unique Dreams became the community’s reality so to speak. 

Can you tale about some of the programs that Unique Dreams, Inc. runs? 

We actually just finished up a 12-week pilot. The city funded us for a 12-week pilot project that was called P.U.S.H Through The Wire. P.U.S.H stands for prosperity, unity, sustainability, and humility. It was strictly about building a community. Under that we had the juvenile and adult transitional service program, which is basically just a way to provide resources to people in the community. Outside of that we also sponsored a basketball program and a boxing program that took place in Germantown. Then we provided a financial literacy series and a resume-writing series. What stood out the most about this program was that we had a first step training program which is building trade. What that did is it exposed individuals who enrolled to light, plumbing, carpentry, and electrical [trades]. We were able to partner with the Frankford CDC and they funded the OSHA 10 certification for anybody who completed that program. That was amazing. That was awesome. 

What are some other services or initiatives you offer that you’re really excited about? 

For the last three years we’ve been doing this thing, we call it the “free market.” People are definitely using [that term] now but we coined that phrase. It’s very similar to a flea market. The difference is everything is free. We collect items throughout the year: toiletry items, clothing, shoes, you know things that the community needs. Then we put it out in the parking lot and the community can just have free rein of the stuff. They can have as much as they want. This year we actually scaled it up a little bit and put out small appliances. There were microwaves, a couple of coffee makers, different things that the community needed. They came out and were able to get those things for free. We do that twice a year, we do one in the winter then we do one for the summer/spring mix. We’ve done food distributions on a daily basis. Sometimes when we do produce, it’s like once a week. We’ve partnered with other organizations to do community cleanups. We’re actually hosting our first one this year. I said, “You know what, we often participate, but we’ve never hosted our own. We’re a part of this community, let’s bring the community out.” This is a way for us to engage the community as well. So it’s more than just a cleanup. 

What has been one of the most rewarding things about running Unique Dreams, Inc? 

Oh my goodness, I could go on for days. Honestly, I think it is connecting with the community, like that’s what we’re all about because in order for you to know if a community is changing and what you’ve done has been impactful, you have to know the community. A year from now if this community looks different, five years from now, the hope is that it can be attributed to some of the things we did. We’re not doing this fly by night kind of stuff, we really want to make change. 

I know that you run a few youth programs as well. I saw that you were currently piloting one with your daughter. Can you tell me about that? 

Yes. A little back story about my daughter. At age 19, she got into some trouble, and she was indicted on federal charges. So she was sentenced to two years incarceration and two years probation. She’s now currently at Alderson [a minimum security prison]. Thanks to the CARES Act, she’s being released on home confinement for early release. So she said to me, “Mom when I come home I really think I want to talk to young girls because I’ve been through a lot. That’s probably part of the reason why I’m here.” She and I have been growing this for the past six months and we decided on a few pilots that we were going to run. Thankfully, Power Circle already has a youth program that they run every Tuesday so those girls, we’re separating them from the boys and we’re saying this is yours. We’re going to create this program just for you and you guys are going to build it pretty much. Our first pilot involved a safety initiative. We were just talking about, do you feel safe? Where do you feel safe? Why do you feel safe? It was really successful, everybody was engaged. I was pretty shocked cause when you run pilots you really don’t know. You’re like, “Do I ask these questions? Am I stirring up some things?” But we made them feel comfortable. It was a very comfortable environment. We had jazz music playing. 

What do you hope people gain from your work in the Frankford community?

This is kind of going back but when this building was purchased by the building owner, the vision was — and has always been — to make this a community center. What I would hope that people take away is that the true purpose of all of this, all of the relationships, the partnerships we have, all of those things is really to bring this space back to its original origin, which was a community center. So, I hope that they take away at least the fact that we’re trying to get it to that, and that’s really where we started. 

The groups at The Garsed Center seem to work very closely together. Why do you think that it’s important for you to form those relationships and support one another? 

Oftentimes when you hear about nonprofits everybody kind of works separately, there are some of them that will collaborate. I guess it depends on where they are and their building of their programs. Buddha (Eugene Thomas of Power Circle Mentoring) came along six months to a year ago, and he brought this different energy. My focus has always been on young adults, adults, parents, families, things of that nature, but when I look back all of my career has been working with youth. He kind of brought that full circle. He and I are actually partnering together and working on a different initiative, which is The Circle of Dreams. That’s going to be our youth center here, so it encompasses both of us. We’re dealing with the family issues on my end and partnering on any kind of community things. Then he brings the youth, he has this connection where the youth will be here. He can bring them, we can program with them. I think it’s important when you have a space like this that everybody gets involved. This is a shared space. We want anybody that’s doing anything for the community. We invite them in. We want them to be a part of what we’re doing. We want to be a part of what they’re doing. 

What is at the core of Unique Dreams? What guides the work you do? 

We have a mission statement, it’s all about change. Our mission statement focuses on change through programming, through providing services, and engaging the community. That’s really what we stand for. 

What are your future plans? Is there anything you’re really excited about? 

Expansion. Honestly. I would love to continue what we’re doing here in Frankford. Obviously scale up on some programs, maybe some things that we’ve tried, didn’t work, and find out what really works. This is where we really want to lay our roots, this is where we really want to plant our seeds, watch it grow, then go to other parts of the city where it’s needed. One area in particular that we’re thinking of is West Philadelphia and maybe Germantown. We did have a boxing program there which was pretty successful. A lot of people loved the boxing program. We’re just looking to have spaces like this [Garsed Center] all over the city.

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