An award-winning attitude

If money didn’t matter, what would you do?

Perhaps buy a lavish house or travel the world first class. How about dedicating your life to middle school and high school students? It’s not a choice many would make, unless you’re Adrienne Diercks.

In the 13th annual Ann Bancroft Awards, Diercks, 44, was named the winner of the Dream Maker Award, an honor recognizing the outstanding leadership and achievement of an individual.

The Southwest resident will be recognized at an award ceremony on April 29 at the Hyatt Hotel in downtown for her work with Project SUCCESS, a program she founded in 1994 that helps Minneapolis and St. Paul youth realize their dreams and take positive steps to achieve them.

In high school, Diercks found herself questioning her future, unsatisfied by the explanation that students go to college because “you just do.” She opted to attend a liberal arts college far away, Whittier College near Los Angeles, in hopes to learn more about herself and discover her passions.

After coming up with no clear answer, the recent college graduate decided she wanted to travel, but had to fund her journey herself. After selling her car and getting a full-time job at the Hilton for the remainder of her senior year, she did, and she trekked to places like Africa, the Middle East and Europe for nine months.

“I was literally in Portugal just walking around when I thought, here I am traveling when nine months ago I didn’t know what I was going to do, I didn’t have any money, and I didn’t have a plan,” she said. “It hit me then, when I was only 21 or 22, that what I really wanted to do was work with high school students — maybe middle school, maybe college — and help them really explore who they are, what they want to do, and show them that if you have a plan, you can do anything.”

A year later, after returning to Minneapolis, working at Mpls. St. Paul Magazine, and gathering ideas for her program, Diercks met with a friend who challenged her with the question, “If money didn’t matter, what would you do?”

“We sat down and I laid out my mission, which it still is today: to inspire young people to dream about their future and help them get there,” Diercks said.

She knew she wanted to conduct motivational workshops in the classrooms of Minneapolis schools and she knew she wanted to serve comprehensively: every student in every school the program partners with. As the daughter of a long-time actress, Diercks also saw how theater could inspire kids and offer life lessons, and she aimed to incorporate plays as platforms for discussion.

It took the cooperation of one school, North High School, and one theater, The Guthrie, to get the ball rolling in 1994, and it hasn’t stopped since. Project SUCCESS now serves nearly 10,000 students a year in 17 public middle schools and high schools, with partnerships at 29 local theaters.

Today, Diercks might pose that same question her friend asked her, and many others like it, to the students participating in Project SUCCESS. Each month for seven years, sixth grade–12th grade, Project SUCCESS facilitators enter the classroom and lead engaging discussions and activities centered on setting goals, realizing potential and planning for the future.

Sixth graders, for example, spend the year exploring everything about dreams. When they enter seventh grade, the same facilitator will guide them through goal-setting and achievement. This process continues with students every month of school until they graduate high school and make decisions about what comes next for them.

Additionally, each student and their family are invited to a theater production every month, with tickets donated by the theater, transportation available and a discussion about the play following the show. College tours (both local and national), boundary water summer trips, one-on-one afterschool workshops and school productions round out the activities offered to students by Project SUCCESS.

“Some students might see every single theater production,” Diercks said. “Some students might only see a few, but might go on every single college tour. Everyone participates in the workshops, but I love that we can help students depending on their need at that time throughout the seven years.”

In the spirit of its namesake, a Minnesota native and world-traveler who became the first woman to cross the ice to both the North and South Poles, the Ann Bancroft Foundations recognizes women who encourage the courage, growth, integrity and individuality of girls. To Diercks, however, the Dream Maker award recognizes much more than that; it celebrates the community, the supporters, the schools and the kids, all of which have dreams of their own.

“I’ll never forget kneeling down on-on-one with a 6th grade student, who said, ‘I don’t have a dream,’” Diercks recalled. “It wasn’t until three workshops later, after we’d talked about what a dream is and other students’ dreams that he said, ‘I know what my dream is; I want to buy my mom a house.’”

“It’s so powerful,” Diercks said. “This award celebrates that.”