Teenager Sandra Berkey stood onstage at a packed Purdue University Fort Wayne auditorium Sunday night and said, “Hi.”
Though only two letters long, that greeting symbolized much for a girl who needed time to warm to the Voices of Unity Youth Choir and Marshall White, its director.
“Now, that was a miracle,” White said of Berkey's salutation during the annual Praise Celebration concert at the Rhinehart Music Center.
Choir members – including Berkey, a soprano – glittered under the stage lights in gold shirts and ties as they performed with guest worship singers.
The theme of the fundraiser was Heal Our Land.
Cydney Bridges, an alumni singer, thanked donors for their support.
“You guys have given kids like me the opportunity to succeed and flourish in such a positive environment,” said Bridges, a pageant winner who also credited White for her public speaking skills.
White, founder and CEO of Unity Performing Arts Foundation, encouraged parents and grandparents to get their children involved in Unity. If the children aren't singers, he said, they can participate in a program that focuses on another skill, like public speaking or dance.
But developing singers, writers, speakers and dancers isn't Unity's sole purpose, said Rick Farrant, an artistic team member.
“It's about instilling the confidence and the life skills in young people so that they can become great people and become great leaders,” Farrant said in a video played during the Praise Celebration.
“The transformation is really exciting to see when you give young people the tools necessary to become successful,” Farrant added.
White has taught the choir many life lessons, including life is what they make it, said Amarion Harvey, a tenor. He said the lesson about making your own decisions is particularly meaningful to him.
“If you want to take the negative path, take the negative path,” Harvey said in a video shown between musical performances. “If you want to take the positive path, take the positive path. ... But for me, I choose positive.”
White told the audience their presence mattered.
“Every time you show up at a production like this, what you're doing is telling your kid that they're significant, they're important and they're valuable,” White said.
There is nothing more important than making children feel that way, he added.
“Because if you don't do it, the gangs will do it,” he said. “If you don't do it, the drug dealer will do it. If you don't do it, the criminals will do it, and I'm not going to watch our children be given back to crime.”