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Energizing weekend has electrifying finale

A minister had a vision to bring out the best in young people and let them express talents. Her group has, and does.

By JON WILSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 23, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- Their music raised chill bumps and set an auditorium afire with pride.

More than 300 youngsters took part in Sunday's "Youth on the Move" performance, a Midtown talent showcase featuring singers, dancers, dramatists and enthusiastic audience participation.

Loud "Amens" erupted when a girls quartet, opening with the national anthem, harmonized the line "Oh, say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave."

Then, as keyboard player Julius Anderson and drummer Arthur McCoy uncorked a rollicking tune blending gospel and Caribbean elements, dozens of youngsters marched in, clapping and swaying to the music.

Gangling teenagers and tots barely tall enough to peep over the lip of the stage nearly overflowed the platform at John Hopkins Middle School, which provided the venue. State Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg, and City Council member Earnest Williams were among an audience of 200-plus.

It was the eighth year of the production, the inspiration of the Rev. Constance Samuels.

The lifelong St. Petersburg resident formed the nonprofit Earth Mission in 1980 to mentor youngsters and build self-esteem.

"It all came about in a vision. I was sitting on my front porch, and the Lord came to me in this vision," the Rev. Samuels said. "He began to show me all those things he wanted me to do for young people and bringing out their best, and giving them an opportunity to display their talents."

Youth on the Move is the most visible Earth Mission effort. The idea, the Rev. Samuels said, is to let youngsters express themselves through the arts and learn about integrity and motivation.

Sunday's show was the weekend finale. On Saturday, children heard presentations about drug, crime and HIV awareness, educational excellence and the arts. The day included workshops in voice training and music theory.

The session produced a sea of sound so intense Sunday that audience members could feel the musical notes vibrating. Clear, close harmony washed the auditorium. Derrick Isham, a nonstop motion machine, directed the choir and exhorted the audience "to lift their hands in praise." Many people stood and spread their arms wide.

"These kids really do their best," the Rev. Samuels said.

The minister, 64, has been active in churches all her life, and involved with children for nearly as long. She started playing the piano in Sunday school at St. Paul's Missionary Baptist, where her grandfather, Dr. C.H. Gardner, was pastor for 47 years. She was 11 when she played for her first choir at Galilee Missionary Baptist, and for more than 33 years, she played for the senior choir at Friendship Missionary Baptist.

She is currently chaplain for McRae Funeral Home.

A daughter, Deborah Green, helps with Earth Mission, which the founder hopes to expand to include programs for ex-offenders.

A foster parent for 35 years, the Rev. Samuels just laughs when asked how many youngsters she has mentored.

"It's hard to say. I used to have 10 kids at a time. It's been hundreds and hundreds of kids that have come through my home."

She said she is slowing down the foster parenting, but Earth Mission remains on course.

"It's going to get even larger," she said.

Sunday's turnout for Youth on the Move was the largest yet, Green said.

Lounell Britt, the James B. Sanderlin Neighborhood Center's executive director, acknowledged the occasion this way:

"I'm proud to be a Midtowner. I'm proud to be in St. Petersburg, and I'm proud of you," she told the youngsters.

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