Chattanooga minister offers free summer arts camp to help at-risk youth

Marcellus Barnes, Sr., near right, accompanies choir member CSAS student Genesis Patton, 15, as she sings "My LIfe Is In Your Hands" Wednesday at the Avondale Recreation Center.
Marcellus Barnes, Sr., near right, accompanies choir member CSAS student Genesis Patton, 15, as she sings "My LIfe Is In Your Hands" Wednesday at the Avondale Recreation Center.
photo Marcellus Barnes, Sr., left, presents student scholarships to choir members Jeremy Kimbrough and Brent Payne as Oliver Richmond, right, looks on Wednesday at the Avondale Recreation Center.

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To volunteer or to learn more about Unity Performing Arts Foundation call Barnes at 423-305-8335

Marcellus Barnes stepped into local recreation centers with a plan to positively influence at-risk youth who are gifted in the arts.

He knew students who did well in sports had chances to get beyond their environment and he wanted to provide the same opportunities for those who sing, dance, act and write poetry.

This year Barnes, the pastor of Grace Pointe Church, launched the Unity Performing Arts Foundation. He's hosting a summer arts camp at Carver Youth and Family Development Center and awarded his first two college scholarships to students at Avondale Youth and Family Development Center this month.

"I laugh because I see these kids like me," said Barnes, a 34-year-old husband and father of three. "Maybe they're not going to be the next LeBron James or Stephen Curry, but they could be the next [gospel star] Kirk Franklin."

Local educators chose Jeremy Kimbrough, of East Hamilton Middle High, and Brent Payne, of Signal Mountain Middle High, for the $1,000 scholarships based on the students' essays about quotes from famous leaders like the late Nelson Mandela and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Barnes said.

He plans to give scholarships each year to selected seniors participating in the Unity Performing Arts Foundation.

Barnes started the foundation in March, one month after hosting his last Sounds of Unity concert in honor of Black History Month. For 10 years Barnes brought church groups of different races together to form the Sounds of Unity choir. This year, he used donations collected during his final concert to fund the foundation.

The foundation allows him to teach the arts as an after-school program at recreation centers.

This summer on Thursdays and Fridays from 10:30 a.m. to noon he's hosting a camp for students in grades 2-12 called Rising Stars at Carver Center. The camp, a component of the performing arts foundation, offers youngsters training in voice, instruments, dance and creative writing. About 70 students participate so far. The camp is free. and Barnes said all are welcome.

On Thursday, the minister of music sat at a keyboard in the Carver Center dining area, surrounded by young people.

More than two dozen students listened to instruction while focused on their music. They read directions and practiced words and rhythms repeatedly until they sang a song correctly.

Carver Center Director Don Jenkins was so impressed with their training that he started videotaping the rehearsal.

"School isn't even in session," said Jenkins. "They're focused, attentive, reading and having a great time in the middle of summer."

photo Marcellus Barnes leads students in a choir lesson at Orchard Knob Middle School. Traviun Bowens, one of three boys making up the tenor section against a classroom full of female altos and sopranos, says he appreciates Barnes' efforts. "People in the community are dying," the 14-year-old said. "But he's showing that instead of joining gangs, you can go to school, finish what you start, and get an education."

Students say they want to sing and they enjoy performing. Barnes said he wants to keep them so busy with the arts that they have no time to drift toward bad influences in their lives.

In the first half of the year Chattanooga has seen more than 70 shootings and 17 people killed. Of the dead, all but five victims were under age 30. Three fatalities included teenagers. Police have said several shootings are gang- related.

And several shootings occurred in East Chattanooga areas where many people attending the Avondale and Carver centers live.

Martrel Usher, an 11-year-old East Chattanooga resident, said the center is his safe haven.

"Sometimes when I get bored, I come here," he said.

Eleven-year-old Robert Gunnell lives in Harrison, but comes to the center to be with his aunt and learn about music. He spoke after rehearsing "Stayed on You," by contemporary gospel singer Tye Tribbett.

"This is something to do that's better than gangs and drugs," said Robert. "You don't have to die. You can sing about God."

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at or 423-757-6431.