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Faith meets art with Inspire the Fire

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Members of Inspire the Fire rehearse at McGlohon Theater with famed choreographer Laurieann Gibson. The group performed later that week during a Thanksgiving telethon to raise money for The Harvest Center, a west Charlotte nonprofit that assists the poor and homeless. (Photo: Glenn H. Burkins for Qcitymetro.com)

Navigating adolescence can be tough. It can be overwhelming, particularly for a generation of young people, who — due to circumstances beyond their control — are forced to grow up faster than their years. And, sadly, many teens and “tweens” keep their frustrations and emotions bottled up inside because they feel they have no positive outlet to turn to for self-expression.

To remedy this social ill, hundreds of young people turn to the Charlotte-based youth outreach organization Inspire the Fire. The nonprofit is on a mission to inspire positive change in adolescents through faith and the arts.

“Kids flock to ITF so they can dance out their pain,” said founder Dennis Reed. “They can sing out their frustration.”

According to Reed, a Catawba College graduate, ITF was built around the “philosophy of fun.”

“You don’t often hear that word at school,” he said. “It’s like it’s the ‘F’ word. No one wants to say ‘fun’ because they associate it with being reckless and non-productive … We get crunk and have fun with a purpose.”

For him and his group, the purpose is to help young people make better life choices in order to succeed, not only on the stage — but in life, as well.

“We tell them that you don’t use your family situation or any other situation as a scapegoat for you living a mediocre life,” said Reed. “Mediocrity is never an option. The only option is success and prosperity and you being the best ‘you’ that you can be.”

It’s a movement

Reed said that too many youngsters are often overlooked and underestimated because they may not do exceptionally well in academics or sports. ITF, however, works to raise awareness and appreciation of the artistic abilities of all students by helping them to recognize and develop their talents.

“It’s important that we affirm kids where they are,” said Reed, “so they don’t feel useless or insignificant in any way.”

ITF, he explained, is more than an organization; it’s a movement that — focusing on the disciplines of music, drama and dance — seeks to actively engage youth in their community by empowering them to be the change that they want to see. In addition to hosting performances at venues around the Charlotte area (such as its bi-annual event “The X-Perience,” which brings together 400 youth from around the city) all participants must also volunteer in some form of community service. 

Participants give their time at nursing homes; visit the sick and shut in; raise money for the homeless; and more. Last year, ITF partnered with AT&T to put on a benefit concert that raised more than $10,000 for families impacted by the earthquake in Haiti. The group has also worked with the Arts and Science Council, The Harvest Center, Toys for Tots and Kids First.

“Yes, some of the kids are from the projects,” said Reed. “Some of them are disadvantaged and at-risk, but that does not give them the excuse not to help others. You find countless examples of people in society or even in the Bible, who themselves have nothing, yet they still choose to give and to sacrifice. Giving is a gift … that has to be instilled in our young people.”

'I hated myself'

Reed said his love of the arts essentially saved his life. As a child, he said he always felt different and like he didn’t fit in with other children. Like many young people, he struggled with insecurities and self-doubt. He was teased and called “preacher boy” and even questioned by other children about his masculinity and sexuality before he even knew what that meant.

“It really damages you,” he said. “Especially if you are being accused of something that you’re not and you don’t even know why.”

ITF founder and CEO Dennis Reed Jr.

He remembers dealing with low self-esteem so bad that he used to write hate letters to himself when he was in elementary school. Late one night he took a pencil and a few sheets of paper and wrote the words “I hate myself” over and over until he filled three tear-stained pages front and back. His mom found him scribbling the words and gave him what he needed.

“She put her arms around me,” he said. “She hugged me, and she said: ‘But I love you.’ I don’t remember writing hate letters to myself any after that.”

It wasn’t until he began attending Northwest School of the Arts in 7th grade that he was surrounded by other young people like him and finally felt like he belonged.

“Being involved in the arts built that self-worth that I needed,” he said. “It instilled the confidence that I needed… I can’t imagine my life without music. It is very much a part of my story. I’ve been teaching and directing choirs and composing since I was 12 years old.”

In God we trust

Reed believes there are thousands of children just like him who also need to know they are loved and are capable of accomplishing great things.

He describes ITF as “unapologetically faith-based” and stresses that you can sing and dance all day, but if you don’t know that Jesus loves you, it’s all in vain. ITF focuses on the whole person, and that involves spirituality.

“We won’t ever deny a kid an opportunity to participate or perform with us if they are not a ‘believer,’” said Reed, adding that a number of youth in the program are not Christian. “But they respect us enough to hear us out. Our prayer is that one day they will make that decision to be a follower of Christ.”

The organization also hosts bi-monthly “Soulfoods,” which are discussion sessions where the young people meet as groups or individually with counselors to discuss their personal struggles and triumphs and seek answers to their questions.

“We want to point to God in helping youth to understand how to navigate this life that was given to [them],” Reed said. “Our belief in the Lord Jesus is why we do what we do.”

Get involved

ITF meets on the 2nd and 3rd Saturdays at the AT&T building in uptown Charlotte. Additional rehearsals are also held at Spirit Square. ITF is free and open to all youth between the ages of 10 to 21. For more information, to donate or to get involved, visit www.inspirethefire.org.

Editor's Note: This article was created as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts scene.

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October 5, 2015
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