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South Bay nonprofit helps young Black students find their voices with encouraging arts program

Bay Area nonprofit using the arts to help empower students
Bay Area nonprofit using the arts to help empower students 03:33

Through power and praise, a Bay Area nonprofit organization is transforming young people's lives through the arts. 

Founded more than two decades ago in 2002, Youth Utilizing Power and Praise (YUPP) in Santa Clara has now served hundreds of students across the Bay Area to Sacramento.

Shelene Huey-Booker is the Executive Director of the program. She wanted to create a safe space for students. Huey-Booker knows the importance of belonging. She was bullied as the only black student in her middle-school class.

"One of my classmates had made a sign of a pig and labeled it 'La porky.' And there was this joke that was going around my classroom actually for my seventh and eighth grade years while I was there, so I had no real community," said Huey-Booker.

That experience motivates her to this day to uplift and empower the underserved and overlooked. Students learn how to sing in perfect harmony, how to play the drums, expressing themselves through dance, fine arts and public speaking in their Light it Up School of the Arts and Breaking the Barriers Performing Arts Group.

"It's so comforting. It feels like an actual, real family," said YUPP ambassador Keion Rothschild. 

"When I know like, other parts of my life aren't as stable, I know that I can come here once a month, and I know that all the people here love me and support me," said Okpe Maku, another YUPP ambassador. 

"One of the greatest inspirations is seeing the young people come alive while performing arts," said Dallas Phinsee III, Chairperson of the  YUPP Board of Directors.

It's where Zaire Whitaker found his voice again. He was bullied and even booed off the stage at a talent show, with the audience even throwing things at him.

"It felt horrible to just sit on my gift, 'cause I stopped singing for seven years. And meeting her, it broke me out of my shell," said Whitaker. "She's like, 'Come on boy! Sing!' The first time I met her I cried, because I was that scared. But her showing love, the program has been great."

"Shelene is amazing with these babies," said Zaire's mom,  Kameelah Whitaker. "I'm proud, happy, grateful. All the things!"

Huey-Booker hopes to inspire her students to be proud of who they are and their community.

"As an African American young lady, it is always a privilege to pause and in our communities [have] what we say is a 'Selah' moment -- to think about the shoulders that we stand upon of persons that took the time to fight for the rights of others to have this opportunity to lead out, to be examples, to be able to soar to higher heights that we were kept from," she said.

For Huey-Booker, it's a higher calling, raising up the next generation to see the beauty and strength in themselves.

"The sky is the limit," said Huey-Booker. "As long as your faith is strong and the community is strong, there's absolutely nothing they cannot do."

Students with Youth Utilizing Power and Praise will be going to Washington, D.C. this April to serve and perform in churches and community centers through the area.

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