Gerald Blackmon was nervous, and the 18-year-old self-proclaimed rapper’s voice cracked.
“This is my first time ever doing anything in front of the public, expressing my feelings,” Blackmon said.
He was one of the 20 or so homeless and at-risk young people who on Thursday evening celebrated their gifts — music, art and poetry — at an event in Westport put on by the HALO Learning Center.
Blackmon and hundreds of other teens and adolescents spent the summer at the learning center, exploring talents that many of them didn’t know they had until center workers gave them the opportunity to open up about who they are, what their lives have been like, and where they want to go in their future.
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HALO Foundation is an international nonprofit that feeds, houses and counsels Kansas City’s at-risk and homeless youth.
“They gave me a chance to do what I like to do, write music,” Blackmon said. “I love it. I love HALO. It made me speak out.”
And the rap Blackmon performed, “It’s about expressing my pain and turning to God.”
Partnering with area shelters and residential facilities and Operation Breakthrough, HALO’s free program “emphasizes vocational training paired with lessons on art therapy and life skills,” said Carly Manijak, the organization’s Kansas City program director. The youths explore such areas as cosmetology, sewing, fashion design and entrepreneurship, Manijak, said.
Thursday night, photos of HALO children hung on the walls amid their artwork. Visitors used a phone app to hear each child talk about their artwork or their hopes for their future.
One girl named Chevy said she wants to someday get her real estate license. A boy, Demetris, wants to be a policeman.
The number of homeless youth in Kansas City may surprise some because many of them are not visible, Manijak said. Kansas City’s homeless youth “are not on the street corners. Most are couch surfing, in transitional housing and homeless shelters.”
More than 2,000 young people in the Kansas City area are homeless at any given time. Each year, the HALO Learning Center here serves about 600 kids who are homeless or at risk of being homeless. Last year, the center served 620.
HALO, which has as its goal “to empower youth to become contributing members of their community,” according to its website, has been in Kansas City for 11 years, although its learning center is only 6 years old.
“HALO strives to be a large impact in these youth in the shortest amount of time,” said Erin Eaton, director at the Salvation Army Children’s Shelter in Kansas City.
Manijak said HALO has no age limits. “We work with them until they don’t need us anymore,” she said.
Thursday night’s celebration was designed to give the youth a chance to show off.
Alesia McFadden, 11, and her friend C’Ashia Johnson, also 11, got the hang of it quickly.
Both had been involved with HALO’s summer program for several years. At Thursday’s showcase, both had wearable art on display and were eager to explain to friends how the girls made their colorful skirts.
“This was the first time I have ever used a sewing machine,” said Alesia, a student at University Academy. She and C’Ashia, who will attend Our Lady of Hope Catholic School in the fall, said they enjoy participating in HALO.
“I like how we can be ourselves, “ C’Ashia said.
Jordan Hernandez sat behind a large keyboard and put on a pair of sunglasses so the audience couldn’t look him in the eye. He too was nervous about performing. He wiggled his fingers in front of him and then began to play a smooth jazzy melody.
Onlookers erupted in whistles and applause. Hernandez, 17, who has been playing piano since fifth grade, smiled.
“All the kids we work with are dealing with terrible times in their lives, and this is huge for these kids,” Eaton said.
“My favorite thing about it is that they a have the ability to express themselves.” said said Aubony Chalfant, HALO program facilitator. “It’s so great for them to have a chance to have their voices heard.”