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Show goes on at Ferguson schools thanks to donation

Show goes on at Ferguson schools thanks to donation

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FERGUSON • It’s a show that almost wasn’t going to happen.

For 18 years, thousands of children in the Ferguson-Florissant School District gained self-confidence and discipline as they danced across a stage. They were chosen to participate not on their talent, but rather their leadership and dedication. For several months leading up to the performance, they committed to practicing before school or on Saturday mornings.

But a budget crisis cut district funding for the program, and as its organizers put it, the dream known as Celebrate Children died.

Two months later, the death of Michael Brown turned the world’s eyes on Ferguson. The students in the district had to wait through unrest and violence in their community before they could begin their new school year. When they could finally return to class, they did so without the cherished arts and character program.

Then came a gift.

“Sometimes from tragic events, miracles can grow,” said Betsy Anderson, a retired art teacher who co-founded the program 19 years ago. “Someone wanted to show the children of Ferguson that the world cared.”

The crowdfunding website GoFundme pitched in $50,000 to Celebrate Children.

Typically, the website generates donations by seeking contributions, large and small, from members of the public. But the $50,000 gift to Celebrate Children is instead coming directly from the website’s executives. The money was from the profit the company had made off other Ferguson donation drives.

The show will go on Tuesday and Wednesday at the Touhill Performing Arts Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The theme is “Dancing Our Dream,” featuring some of the favorite dances from throughout the years. It’s the chance to dance at least once more, Anderson said.

The future of the program remains uncertain.

On a recent Saturday, more than 150 elementary and middle school children were running through routines with a live band. As the students danced to “Fabulous Feet,” Anderson pointed out different people. The boy with autism who knows every single routine, even the ones he’s not in. The alumni, years removed from school and the program, who still come back to help. The keyboardist in her 80s who has played in each of the 19 years of the program.

The show has never really been about learning to dance and perform. Putting children on stage in a professional theater to show off their hard work can be powerful.

“All they have to do to be successful in this is want it in their heart and be willing to try,” Anderson said. “What that child learns on stage is — I’m worth it. It changes them forever.”

Inspired by programs in New York City and Austin, Texas, Celebrate Children is based on the belief that through hard work, courage, dedication and teamwork, children develop skills to be successful in all areas of life.

The program is especially important for middle schoolers, who lack many extracurricular activities and are dealing with the challenges of adolescence, parents say.

The children start out with doubt about their abilities, said Michael Bay, 24, who danced in the program when he was in school and now returns to help. “We give them this place where they can be themselves.”

Parents and students have raised money this year to help support the program. Anderson knitted scarves and sold them. They also count on ticket sales.

The district has not included Celebrate Children in the budget for the next school year. But worthy programs like this are part of the reason Ferguson-Florissant established a foundation last fall, spokeswoman Jana Shortt said.

With support from the foundation and other fundraising, organizers hope the district can continue the tradition, she said.

The 2014 Celebrate Children program cost more than $92,000 to produce, including rental fees for the Touhill Center, professional fees for the director, choreographers, singers and musicians and other ancillary costs.

The GoFundMe donation represented the 5 percent fee the company made from many Ferguson-related campaigns. Those included donor drives such as the ones set up to assist small business owners affected by looting, and one for Darren Wilson, the former police officer who shot Brown.

Alexis Clinton, an eighth-grader at Ferguson Middle, said she was so happy about the gift.

“From the situation that happened, people reached out to help us. They saw this is a city where kids need something to look up to,” she said

Alexis has been waiting since sixth grade for her eighth-grade year, when the oldest students in the program are introduced and freestyle on stage.

She doesn’t know exactly which moves she’ll perform.

“I’ll probably be between tears, so we’ll see,” she said.

Jessica Bock is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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