The song began with a simple count, then the music swelled: dozens of young singers, one voice.
It’s been a couple of years since the Toledo Youth Choir formed for the purpose of performing at Toledo’s 2012 Martin Luther King, Jr., Day program, and in that time its members found friendship, fans, and something that feels a lot like family.
They will sing at today’s unity day celebration at Savage Arena — their third time performing at the event that led to the choir’s creation. The day’s events begin at 9 a.m. and will feature the choir as well as remarks from dignitaries, local musicians, and the presentation of the Toledo Unity Award and the 2014 University of Toledo MLK scholarships.
PHOTO GALLERY: Toledo Youth Choir
A shared sound and a common bond bring the 40 members a sense of personal belonging and a collective community mission.
Or, as 15-year-old soprano Delaina Lane put it succinctly, “Family, love, all of the above.”
“We just want to bring the youth together ...,” she said. “Unity is the key element.”
Director Antoinette Goodloe helped assemble the choir at the request of then-Mayor Michael Bell’s office. The city and University of Toledo were planning for the annual celebration honoring the civil rights leader.
The fledgling group recruited members from Toledo Public Schools as well as private and charter schools. The first rehearsal was in December, 2011, and they performed the next month at the Martin Luther King, Jr., event.
When the applause ended, the singing didn’t.
The choir began with a simple concept, then the mission expanded: dozens of young singers, one vision.
The group has stayed together, rehearsing on Tuesdays, and performing at area functions including the African-American Festival, at Lourdes University, and at an event for the Lucas County Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, program.
“We were just in awe of their talent and their spirit, and it just made you want to dance. You couldn’t sit still,” said CASA training coordinator Judy Leb.
The group plans to seek nonprofit status this year so its scope can expand to provide more resources to members, such as helping them get into college and find scholarships.
“One thing that we find is that a lot of that information is lacking in the inner city and with our kids,” Ms. Goodloe said. “We want to put them in a position to be successful. We want to be able to have the funds and the latitude … to be able to do other things.”
She has been leading singers since age 8 when her grandmother first tapped her to direct a junior choir at St. Paul AME Zion Church. The youth choir is a family effort. Her daughter Arielle Campbell is an assistant director, her husband is one of the choir’s business managers, and her son is a member.
In the young singers, she sees not just talent but opportunity.
“We know that we have diamonds in the rough, so we are going to do what we can to make them that shiny bright diamond that they can be. We focus on the potential that’s in them,” Ms. Goodloe said.
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Participants range in age from 12 to 25. Most members are African-American, but the group welcomes everyone. A handful of young musicians accompany the singers in a band that features drums, guitar, keyboard, and organ.
Their backgrounds vary from foster care to two-parent households to a few with gang ties.
Some members are raised by grandparents, and others are single moms and dads with their own children.
Ms. Goodloe and the choir leaders are Christians, and a recent rehearsal began with a prayer, hands clasped, heads bowed. But the focus isn’t evangelism, and music “is just a hook.”
“We are trying to teach these kids life skills, that there is life after high school,” she said. “We’re trying to equip them, and let them know they can be positive. They can be productive.”
They also are community focused. The choir rehearsed for a long time at St. Mark Baptist Church on Detroit Avenue until a fire destroyed the building earlier this month. Other churches welcomed the group as it prepared for its marquee Martin Luther King, Jr., Day performance, but they are still seeking a permanent rehearsal spot.
The choir hasn’t forgotten St. Mark. They will perform at a 4 p.m. Feb. 2 benefit for the church at Indiana Avenue Missionary Baptist Church.
“St. Mark has done so much for us so we want to give back,” Ms. Campbell, a member of St. Mark, told choir members.
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Today’s unity celebration is another opportunity for the choir to reach out. Ms. Goodloe said the event sets the tone for the rest of the year by emphasizing that everyone has a chance to “leave your mark.”
“We can all excel. We can all be successful. We can all have the American dream,” she said.
“You have just as much to offer as anybody.”
The message clicked with some choir members. For Delaina, a sophomore at Toledo Early College High School, the performance is a chance to inspire others.
“Martin Luther King did so much for us, and we should give back to the community,” she said. “We sometimes lose sight of that.”
Singing gives joy to Ernest Kight II, 19, and he knows it brings happiness to those listening.
“I hope they walk away not by remembering us, but remembering the message we bring,” said the Owens Community College student. “I hope they feel uplifted. I hope they want to make their communities better.”
A simple hope, one choir.
Contact Vanessa McCray at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6065, or on Twitter @vanmccray.