Joseph Sehwani knows a thing or two about turning a bad situation around. At age 16, Sehwani was diagnosed with Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON), a genetic disorder which causes central vision loss. He quickly saw the lack of awareness and support for people suffering from LHON and other rare disabilities, and decided to take the matter into his own hands. During his first year at Seton Hall University, Sehwani started the nonprofit Dreamscape Foundation in Flanders, New Jersey to educate the community on rare disabilities and diseases, to help disabled individuals fight for independence, and to inspire others through raising awareness and funding programs. Now a junior in college, Sehwani talked to SuperheroYou about his foundation, including the progress they’ve made and their future plans.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
SuperheroYou: Tell us about Dreamscape Foundation. What is it and how does it work?Joseph Sehwani: Dreamscape Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. It began after I came out of high school when I was 18. The idea of Dreamscape began when I was 16 due to my sudden-onset disability called Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy. I experienced a lot of difficulty adapting to the disability with school programs and life at home. There are about 100 people who have LHON every year, so it’s very hard to get in touch with another person who has experienced it. There is a very small community of people I reached out to, but no one was in the same spot where I was at the time. They were all in college while I was struggling to finish up high school and get into college. I was having a lot of problems with teachers, the College Board and the academic testing at the same time.
That was the whole drive behind Dreamscape Foundation. I wanted to support people with rare disabilities and diseases. One of the things I always say is that society is very black and white – you’re either blind or you’re not; you’re deaf or you can hear. I was always in the gray area. I was never fully blind, and I’m still not fully blind. But I can’t see well enough to drive, to read or to recognize people, and I need adaptive technology. I don’t think there’s enough awareness for that middle ground. One of the issues I’ve noticed is that if people in the gray area wanted help, there was a lot of confusion. So I wanted to clear that up and build an organization that caters to that community’s needs and help them find independence.
SHY: What inspired you to create your own nonprofit rather than taking another route to help different communities?JS: In the beginning when I had a lot of issues with school and finding independence, I figured that I couldn’t find what I envisioned out there already. And I’ve always wanted to help people, so that just came naturally. I noticed that there was a gap, and I wanted to fill it because if I didn’t, I didn’t know if anyone else would. So the nonprofit was the best route for me.
It’s a lot of hard work and a rewarding experience. When I was 16 years old and started working on the foundation, I found that this was my passion and my calling. But at the same time, one of the things that kept me going was my family and my friends’ support. So they were another driving force of Dreamscape, and we all put in a lot of work to get it together.
SHY: What are some of the programs or foundations you work with? When people donate, how is that money used to help people with these rare disabilities?JS: Just to clarify, Dreamscape Foundation does a lot of both fundraising and awareness activities. Right now, we’re working with local school programs to adapting classrooms for disabled students within the New Jersey school district. That means we have to provide funding and adaptive technology such as adaptive computers and software. So the funds go there.
In addition, we’re working with various doctors specifically right now for LHON. We have some funding set up for the doctors to put research behind the project.
We’ve also helped individual people. Not too long ago, there was a girl who had cancer and we needed to do a fundraising activity for her. She and her family reached out to a friend and that friend reached out to me, so we held a fundraising campaign online. She needed $8,000, and we contributed to that goal. So we’ll either help groups of people or individuals.
During the holiday season, we’ll reach out to startup homes and childcare centers to donate and see what they need as well as how we can impact them. In Flanders, NJ, we also work with one of the churches to figure out different campaigns and get involved with the community.
But what we’re really focusing on right now is getting embedded within the school programs. That’s where the inspiration for Dreamscape came from. Once that goes through, I’ll feel like I’m now aiding one of the problems that I originally faced. But that’s not really the end to my help. Instead, that’s just the beginning to see where else we can go from there.
SHY: Dreamscape is now about two years old. What progress has Dreamscape made and what are some of your future goals?JS: Since the beginning, Dreamscape has picked up a lot of new goals, new audiences and sponsorships. One of the biggest turning points was picking up the Google for Nonprofits sponsorship, which is an ad grant. In the beginning, it awarded Dreamscape $10,000 a month in advertising, and then 9 months later, it raised it to $40,000 a month. That was a huge push, and it really opened up our audience and sped up the process of growth. Another big feat was joining the Amazonsmile Program, which is a sponsorship through Amazon where I was allowed to reach out to our volunteer network, our interest network, and the individuals who were following us on social media and via newsletters, and they were able to donate portions of their shopping sales to Dreamscape.
Another milestone I would say would definitely be with Emily, who we helped. She was a 3–year–old girl in Warren, Michigan and the community reached out to me about her rare form of cancer. It was rewarding to see a large group of 200 to 300 people wanting to help a single individual. I learned that there are a lot of good people in the world who want to help. This event was Dreamscape’s first major interaction with a large community. It helped Dreamscape built its name, especially through social media. Also, the community who approached me to help them support Emily are now hosting an event solely for Dreamscape this year.
Another milestone is with our new sponsorships. We’re working with Nissan in Stanhope, NJ, and we’re working on a new car project, which is called Dream Cars. It’s a raffling car donation program. People are able to donate through raffle tickets towards the vehicle. And once that’s complete, we raffle off the car. So it was another new unique way to donate to an organization. This was started when one of my friends now, Julie, reached out. She is the owner of Lynnes Automotive Group. She had LHON and my name was passed to her through the LHON community. She wanted to talk about it and have another person to interact with and share experiences. During our conversation, one of the things that came up was that she’s a businesswoman who has this car dealership, and she said numerous times that she wants to be more than a car dealer, and she wants to help. So the idea of Dream Cars came together. We both have personal connections to the cause so that partnership came naturally.
I’ve also done a Dreamscape clothing line. It is hosted through the Zazzle Giving Program. People are now able to wear their charity pride. It wasn’t about raising funds for that, rather more about raising awareness and creating a conversation starter.
During this time, I was also nominated for the Caught in the Act award, which is a nationwide award from the Random Acts Organization, which is another large nonprofit. The Caught in the Act Award recognizes people who show extreme acts of kindness. So my story was shared, and that was a really fulfilling moment, just because people were noticing and recognizing what I wanted to do. To build off that, I was also reached out to by an author who is writing a book about overcoming challenges, and he was reaching out to a bunch of different people from children to adults, and I’m also included in there. I do this because I want to help and inspire people, but it’s nice to know along the way that things are happening and are working.
Also last January, my grandpa passed away. One of the people we reached out to on his behalf was Akiane Kramarik, an artist who painted Jesus – there’s a huge documentary about her. We reached out to her because we were fundraising my grandpa’s behalf; he was all for her, so she donated paintings on behalf of the organization and on behalf of him because we were going to do something with cancer (that’s what he passed away from). That was another huge thing as well.
Another big milestone is definitely encouraging a lot of creative volunteering. I’ve had a lot of voice actors, artists, and musicians volunteer their time.
SHY: What are your future goals?JS:Future goals – I would definitely say I want to begin the push of embedding into the school programs. And to tie in the future and present goals, I was reached out to by another organization called the NTC Wismettac Foundation, and they donated on behalf of the school program we’re getting ready. They donated a large sum to help us with equipment: CCTVs and computer programs such as JAWS, Zoom Techs and Magnifiers. So I want to begin working with school programs and adapt classrooms for students with disabilities because that was one of the driving forces behind Dreamscape. And we’ll hopefully be able to branch out beyond New Jersey school programs.
In addition, we’re working on another project called Dream Art. It’s similar to Dream Cars, but it’s with art. We’re working with an art gallery right now; they’re going to donate paintings to the organization, which we’re going to raffle off.
In addition, another future goal would be to spread the word and get as big as possible. It’s all about growing. I want to get a better volunteering network together because I have a lot of people that are more than happy to help. Right now it’s me and my family, and we’re all pushing the foundation together, and it’s getting to a point where we need more people. We need more backing and a lot more support. I also hope to track down more sponsorships, because it’s always good when big sponsorships have our backs. Right now we have Google, Amazon, and Microsoft through their TechSuite program. Any other organizations that are able to support Dreamscape with a big name is a huge help. It’s helpful for credibility and justification of our mission, more so than the actual sponsorship itself.
Lastly, I want to hopefully tie in community efforts – so adopt more local philanthropic causes to get more engaged within the community. I have to find a proper balance between nationwide and local projects.
Overall, I guess at the end of the day, my future goals would be to get embedded into a lot more school programs, push new projects like Dream Art, reach out to more sponsorships and encourage a lot more community involvement to keep growing. « PreviousNext »