When the world champion Voices of Unity Youth Choir performs at the Vatican this summer, it won’t be the first time they’ve travelled overseas. The choir is part of Fort Wayne-based Unity Performing Arts Foundation (UPAF).
“UPAF is a multifaceted performing arts foundation with a focus on building kids in the areas of character, artistry, and leadership,” said Marshall White, CEO and founder of UPAF and director and life coach of Voices of Unity. “It also has a platform of promoting soulful art forms in dance, oratory, instrumental music, and drama.”
UPAF is a program designed to develop young people in an after school setting as a companion to school, home, and church; a support system to come around each kid and help them be successful.
“We use the arts as the vehicle of activity and our focus is based on providing substance for life,” he added. “We’re adding significance and purpose to the kids’ lives.”
The ‘substance’ he’s talking about comes from regular life lessons, business roundtable forums, internship projects, and empowerment weekends during which choir members are exposed to a variety of different careers. For White, it’s about developing “character, leadership, structure, discipline…helping them to discover their potential.”
White started the organization in 2000, after 7 years of strategic planning. At the beginning, the range of ages ran from 10-19, but over the years younger students have begun to participate. Now, UPAF has more than 150 active members, with students as young as 7 years old.
White says the organization serves to expand the horizons of kids in the Fort Wayne area, providing exposure, opportunities, and possibilities. The students have performed at Colts games, with a host of major artists, and received international recognition for excellence.
“In 2010 we were asked to go to China to participate for the first time in the World Choir Olympics, and we came back grand champions,” White said. “That exposed us to the international world. And in 2012 the World Choir Olympics came to Cincinnati and we won there…so far in the World Choir Olympics, we’ve won five gold medals and one silver.”
White sees plenty of room for growth in the future: UPAF has a goal to launch 6 artistic programs: choral music, creative writing, public speaking, drama, dance, and instrumental (orchestra). Currently, creative writing and the choral program are the only ones available, and White said that the next four will come in the future.
UPAF has also initiated the first phase of an art institute, which White believes will continue to grow. He is also working on creating a series of youth development modules focusing on character and leadership models that can be taught in schools, alongside a lecture series for youth featuring young, successful professionals.
All of this will be housed in the Unity Center for Arts and Youth Development, featuring state of the art technology and performance spaces, which White says has been accepted as a regional initiative project.
Ultimately, he intends to implement the model across the country. With such ambitious goals for growth, it’s no surprise that UPAF sees value in partnering with Greater Fort Wayne Inc.
“They’re very open to seeing things in a different way, and that’s what I’m interested in being part of,” White said. “I don’t want to work around organizations who say, ‘we’ve done it this way, and this is the way we’ll do it.’ They’re more innovative.”
White is also a member of the board, and the strategic planning committee, where he says he’s had the opportunity to “rub shoulders” with some of the most influential people in business and education in the community.
“The reason I’m a part of GFW is simply because they have a vision to enhance and improve the image of the city, and the overall value of the city,” he said. “What better organization to partner with?”