SEU alumnus Mike Cooper (Biblical Studies, ’98) is all about action, and as the executive director of Lakeland’s Dream Center for over 14 years, Mike has been integral to establishing the organization’s presence and connection to the surrounding community.
“A lot of the time, people want to sit down and methodically map out each strategy and each initiative,” explained Mike. “But I say, let’s get out there, do it and watch it unfold. Let God define it.”
The Dream Center of Lakeland is a nonprofit organization that offers everything from youth and child mentoring programs, adult classes and basketball leagues to neighborhood cleanups, a pregnancy clinic, and food and clothing distribution.
Originally established as the Freedom Center in 2003, the Dream Center received its current title in 2008. It was during this transition that Mike stepped into his leadership position at the center, joined by fellow Southeastern University alumnus Steve Hill. Steve had previously served as Mike’s intern at Carpenter’s Home Church in Lakeland, Florida, and came on staff as the Dream Center’s program director. Steve assists with overseeing the center’s weekly programs, communications, grant writing and much more.
“The part of my role that I enjoy most is finding avenues to effectively pastor and disciple our neighbors as they come to embrace a life with Jesus,” he said.
Prior to his role at the center, Mike worked as an athletic director and the assistant principal at Victory Christian Academy in Lakeland. In addition, he served as the coach for the women’s club soccer team at SEU between 2002 to 2003, before the women’s soccer program was officially introduced at the university. Since becoming the executive director, Mike has worked to secure the trust of the community and create relationships with local businesses, law enforcement, and city officials.
“I don’t see barriers. I don’t focus on just trying to land the funds. I look to create real connections with people and build those personal relationships,” Mike expressed.
This perspective has enabled Mike to obtain the assets and connections necessary for many of the Dream Center’s projects and expansions, including the recent completion of the center’s Kids Club Park. In July of 2022, the center celebrated the opening of a brand new outdoor stage and covered pavilion. Mike hopes to use these two structures to further frame the Dream Center as the focal point for community gatherings.
Mike emphasized, “Our property is continually being developed. My goal is to create a place where the whole community can come together and bring even more people in proximity with the gospel.” Kids Club Park also features a community garden that supports the Dream Center’s food pantry and soup kitchen. The garden gives children from the surrounding community the opportunity to learn about the basics of hydroponic gardening.
“Eventually, I’d love to see the community running all of this,” said Mike. The Dream Center’s campus also includes a community center, complete with a commercial kitchen, a computer lab, a gym, and various classroom spaces for mentoring and Bible studies. The main gym is typically set up for the weekly Kids Club program, which brings in children from 18 different at-risk neighborhoods on Saturdays. The children who attend have the opportunity to participate in games and learning activities and hear a biblically-themed message.
On weekdays, the Dream Center utilizes a truck with a stage, sound system, TV screen and puppet stage to hold a children’s church service at local parks and apartment complexes.
Next Generation Impact
Teresa Swann, also an SEU graduate, is the director of Kids Club and has been involved in children’s ministry for over 30 years. “God gave me a passion for the lost, and He equipped me with the ability to do something about it,” Teresa explained. “These kids just need someone to believe in them. The Dream Center invests and believes in them when no one else will.”
In the county where the center is located, one in four children are considered food insecure and do not have regular access to three adequate meals per day. The Dream Center distributes over 4,000 pounds of food each month, primarily through the Mercantile – a designated space where members of the community can pick up groceries and other essentials. They also offer resources to expectant mothers at their pregnancy center, which houses a diaper bank and the pregnancy clinic, which is equipped with a full exam room and sonogram machine.
Leadership in the Community
With a clear intentionality for reaching the community, Mike devotes his time to ensuring every effort from the center is fulfilling a need. Mike’s typical day isn’t based around meetings or a strict schedule. Rather, he prioritizes the visits from local business owners or individuals from the neighborhood who come seeking his guidance or looking to connect.
Mike also dedicates his efforts to serving on the Southeastern University’s Nursing Advisory Council and the Lakeland Police Department’s Police Athletic League (PAL) Advisory Board. “This community can tell when you’re being real and genuine in your interactions with them. I think I’ve been able to break the walls down just by being comfortable in my own skin,” Mike reflected. “They appreciate that sense of authenticity — it opens the door for that personal relationship to develop.”
Outreach Events and Volunteering
Another key aspect to securing the trust and backing of the community has been the center’s neighborhood cleanups. The Dream Center currently works with 12 churches in varying regions of Lakeland and helps them each host two outreaches a year. By partnering with local churches to hold service days for their congregations, the Dream Center has been able to restore many areas throughout Lakeland that were once deemed dangerous.
Mike remarked, “Something as simple as cleaning up and cutting down bushes and trees can make people feel more comfortable and safe walking down the street. It allows neighbors to see neighbors.” The Dream Center provides all the tools and resources for volunteers, including mowers, weeders, gloves, goggles and first aid kits – everything needed to establish a successful outreach.
Between serve days, weekly programs and events, volunteers give an average of over 23,000 hours of service to the Dream Center each year. “I always tell people that the Dream Center is defined by outreach. We are compelled by Christ, and that is why we are out there, week after week, plugging away,” said Mike. “It’s always about that next person we’re gonna reach.”
Although it would be easy to see Mike’s high energy and assume he was born extroverted, he wasn’t always so outgoing. It wasn’t until Mike discovered his calling that he received his people-oriented gift
set. “When God called me into the ministry, I changed overnight,” Mike recalled. “I used to be very quiet and meek, but God gave me this boldness.”
Mike grew up in the Appalachians, originating from a small town in Western Maryland known as Oldtown. He attended a small Assemblies of God church in the country with his family and describes the moment he accepted Christ as a radical experience.
Mike recollected, “I was just hit by the Holy Spirit, and I had never experienced anything quite like it. I danced all over the church. And that night, the pastor had confirmed my feeling that I had been called into the ministry.”
Mike went on to attend Allegheny County College and Evangel University, where he continued to earn credits towards his degree while coaching. He ended up finishing his degree through a Southeastern University extension program while working as a youth pastor in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“Although I didn’t attend Southeastern as a traditional student, it allowed me to gain a foothold in the Lakeland community. It also made it easy to incorporate the university into our outreach plan for Lakeland.” Between current students and alumni, the Dream Center sees heavy involvement from Southeastern University. Nursing students volunteer weekly in the center’s clinic, and athletes and athletic staff volunteer their time on a monthly basis, assisting in a variety of capacities.
Most recently, the center welcomed two more alumni, Madison Myer ’21 and Nick Dell ’15. Madison serves as the front desk receptionist and assists with Kids Club, and Nick is the outreach director.
As for the future, Mike is confident that the Dream Center will continue to expand its programs and properties.
“The Dream Center’s impact will get greater and greater with time,” Mike expressed. “We’re just going to keep loving people and serving people and leave the rest up to God.”