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Singing a song of character

The Wise Up to Your Self teen community choir offers teens gospel music and character building exercises.

By JEAN CAREY
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 5, 2002


Ashley Burgess held tightly to a metal lectern Tuesday as she studied her upcoming performance.

But when the words flew, her voice was sweet and strong.

Burgess, a student at King High School, belongs to the Wise Up to Your Self Character Education and Musical Arts Teen Choir of Tampa. The 17-year-old junior was on hand for her choir's final practice before its big concert tonight.

The performance, free and open to the public, is at 7 p.m. at the 34th Street Church of God in Belmont Heights. The group rehearsed Tuesday as it has since January at Ferrell Adult and Community School on Chelsea Street.

Burgess says that Wise Up to Your Self, which offers teenagers character building exercises as well as an opportunity to sing contemporary and traditional gospel tunes, has filled some empty places in her life.

"I'm not affiliated with a church, so this allows me to be part of a choir," she said.

Burgess says she also admires the choir's founder, Israel Peniel.

"Dr. Peniel has the highest degree an educator can have, and I want to be a teacher, too," she said.

"Every time he talks, it's been about something that's going on in my life."

Peniel planned the program that way, to offer a musical outlet for teens while addressing their need for guidance in earthly struggles.

Peniel, 52, is a former NFL player who earned his doctorate in 2000 from Nova Southeastern University, He created Wise Up to Your Self with his partner in community service -- and in life -- Gloria Peniel. Gloria Peniel, 51, is a manager for the Tampa-Hillsborough Public Library System.

At Tuesday's rehearsal, the moments between songs were filled with giggles and smiles. Israel Peniel sang along with the 25-member choir, belting out a hearty version of How I Love Jesus, accompanied by the group's regular four-piece ensemble.

The Peniels incorporate scriptural teachings into the discussion portion of each meeting, though no particular denomination is followed.

Ferrell administrator Robert Davis, 40, said he wondered at first how religious content would fit on public school property.

But, he said, "after carefully considering the needs of the students, I decided it (Wise Up to Your Self) would be ideal."

Felicia Archie, 31, watched as her daughters Tomisha Allen, 13, and Thametria McKay, 15, clapped and swayed during one hymn.

Archie agrees that the religious element makes the program different and special.

She said she hesitated to allow another activity for her busy teens, but, "When they started bringing the Word in, I said they could stay. There is a lot to learn here beyond the music."

Belton Griffin, 18, graduates from King High School this spring with a scholarship at Stillman University in Alabama waiting.

He credits the program with making him college-ready.

"I've stepped up to be a leader in the choir, and learned not to be so antisocial sometimes," said Griffin.

"You just don't see this so much these days," he said. "It's great to see young people trying to do something with their lives."

If you go

  • WHAT: Wise Up to Your Self Teen Musical Choir
  • WHEN: 7 p.m. today WHERE: 34th Street Church of God, 3000 N 34th St., Tampa
  • ADMISSION: Free
  • INFORMATION: Call 975-8707

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