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Young Singers Make "Soul" Music Together

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While they're not quite at the same marquee status as some of the stars they've performed with, The Soul Children of Chicago are making a name for themselves. For WBEZ, Eight Forty-Eight's intern Erica Hunter has the story.

You can hear Walt Whitman and the Soul Children of Chicago perform tonight at Operation Restoration for Haiti,  a benefit concert at Oakdale Covenant Church in Chicago.

General Mills Gospel Choir Contest

Markeyta Sconiers

Most kids can only dream of winning a Grammy Award or performing with Jennifer Hudson, but for youth in the Soul Children of Chicago, it's a reality.

MUSIC: Jennifer Hudson and the Soul Children of Chicago

Roy Barron Jr. is a 17-year-old member of the choir.

BARRON: The most exciting person I've performed with is Jennifer Hudson. She was thanking us for singing with her, and just to have a star—a celebrity on that level thanking you for singing with them, it opens your eyes like okay this is an organization that has a big legacy and even stars like Jennifer Hudson respects that.

The Soul Children haven't just performed with famous artists—they're shooting for the stars themselves. With eight albums under their belts and a single that recently hit the gospel music Billboard Chart these kids are no strangers to hard work, discipline, and success.

Ranging from ages seven to 17 the Soul Children embody professionalism, passion and commitment. Fourteen-year-old Kyana Nunnally has been with the choir for seven years. She says it's all about learning how to juggle everything in her life.

NUNNALLY: Well you just gotta know how to prioritize everything that you do. I choose the choir and my school work and I try not to do too much more outside of that because I know that this is important to me.

Their busy practice and performance schedules require lots of commitment, especially during tough practices.

WHITMAN: I close my rehearsals because they're so intense people might think I'm mean. You know? Rehearsals can be intense. They can sometimes leave out happy or they can leave out crying. It depends upon whatever goes on. I've had them both. I've had them crying and wanting to quit, because you know, you're breaking them in.

Walt Whitman is the founder and president of the Soul Children of Chicago. He says his love for music is the foundation for the choir. He got the idea over 20 years ago while teaching music at St. John de La Salle Catholic Academy.

WHITMAN: It wasn't really formed to be a community choir, but it became a community choir once we came out of the school system and made it city wide.

The Soul Children gained popularity in the black community after winning a choir contest in 1984 where they competed against nine area choirs for a $5,000 grand prize. They've been expanding their fan base and membership ever since.

And, Whitman says anyone can audition, but…

WHITMAN: We don't take everybody. They know that when they come in they gotta bring it! It's just like going for the American Idol. I'm not Simon, but it is intense though. When they come out they're sweating.

15 year-old Darvell Jones is one of the lucky ones who survived auditions.

JONES: It was about 150 of us that were there, and out of that 150 he only picked about 25 or 30. I just couldn't believe that out of all of these people that I was good enough to make it into the Soul Children.

MUSIC: Soul Children of Chicago, My Time, My Favor

But it's not just about singing well.

WHITMAN: I saw the potential of the kids, and I fell in love with what we were able to develop out of the children. They're drug free, gang free, academically inclined kids who know purpose and destiny because of the discipline that is taught within the confines of the organization.

And, the work ethic, professionalism, and discipline don't go away when the kids leave the choir. Markeyta Sconiers is an alum who joined the choir in 1990. She says it may sound cliché, but she wouldn't be where she is today if it weren't for Whitman and the choir.

SCONIERS: I realize now as an adult the importance of all of the discipline, the hard work, the music knowledge that Mr. Whitman taught and how it helped shape me to be the adult I am today. It's more than a choir. The soul children will continue to greatly impact youth all around the world. I'm thankful to God everyday for this ministry.

And with success comes responsibility.

WHITMAN: We've been called to reach to the nations. That's why we go to Israel, we go to Nigeria, to these different countries. Our calling is becoming much deeper than just a performance so you don't see just the choir as just a performance group but now you're seeing it as a real ministry of outreach.

MUSIC: The Soul Children of Chicago and the Chicago Philharmonic Jazz Orchestra

Whitman plans to expand this ministry by starting Soul Children choirs in other cities and countries.

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