You could say that Madisyn Kenner’s first ever fan was her dog, Monroe. This 13-year-old has come a long way from the days of singing in the shower and performing for her pooch: She was chosen as the 2013 winner of The Gift, an Atlanta-area youth singing competition sponsored by McDonald’s.
Madisyn is an eighth-grader at Landmark Christian School. Her parents discovered her vocal talent several years ago. “She had a little microphone, and I remember her singing a Mariah Carey song,” said mom Nakia Shaw of College Park. “The fact that she could stay on key let me know that she has a talent.”
“She’s amazingly talented,” her father Robert Kenner Jr. of Stockbridge adds. “She’s also very serious about honing her skills as a musician and an artist and writer. I’m very proud of her.”
Auditioning for The Gift was the first time Madisyn performed in front of an audience, other than at her school talent show (which, by the way, she won last year). And although she said she was nervous when she approached the microphone in front of the judges, “I was really excited to get out there. I genuinely enjoy performing and sharing what God has given me with the world.”
Not only did she make it through two rounds to win the competition, but she did it singing songs she wrote herself. The song she performed to clinch the title, Fire, Storm and Rain, was inspired by a cranky baby. “I wrote it when I was baby-sitting. I told her not to cry and you’ll make it through the fire, the storm and the rain. It is a feel-good song.”
And Madisyn is feeling pretty good herself these days after earning $20,000 in cash and prizes as the winner of The Gift. “I feel humbled, amazed and stunned that I was chosen. It makes me want to continue to do what I’m doing.”
Her mom couldn’t agree more. “She is a kind person, and that’s the best a mother can ask for. My continued hope for her is that she is happy and that she does something she loves.”
– Sherry V. Crawley
For her 10th birthday, Katie Hollenshead knew exactly what she wanted. “All I want for my birthday is to sign me up for voice lessons,” she told her mother Jacqui Willey.
Willey and her husband, Richard Hollenshead, of East Cobb weren’t sure then that their daughter was as talented as they suspected she might be. After Katie’s second lesson, though, voice teacher Carrie Bell of Marietta told them Katie was a natural, with a lovely voice and perfect pitch.
Katie, 17, and a senior at Walton High School, has been singing all her life, from her first solo appearance at age 3, for grandparents’ day at her preschool.
“I’ve always wanted to do musical theater,” Katie says, “but when I definitely knew I would be doing this all my life was the final performance of Grey Gardens.” That was her first role with a professional theater company, Actor’s Express, at age 14.
Since then, she’s had parts in school musicals and other theater productions in metro Atlanta, most recently Spring Awakening with Fabrefaction Theatre Company, in which she played Wendla, a difficult role and her favorite so far. “It’s a modern show with rock music set in the late 19th Century Germany,” she says. “And it’s about what could happen if parents don’t talk with their children about sex. … It’s really dark.” Toward the end of the show, her character dies.
Next up is the role of Cinderella in Walton High’s Into the Woods, Nov. 14-16.
When’s she’s not rehearsing, Katie loves teaching children. This summer she helped with a one-week theater camp for kids. She’s participated in three summer workshops with the Broadway Dreams Foundation, and she’s auditioned and auditioned.
“She’s had her heartaches when she didn’t get a part she really wanted, but then she moves on and goes to the next audition,” Willey says.
Soon Katie will be starting an intense round of auditions, at colleges that offer a Bachelor of Fine Arts in musical theater and a path to Broadway and beyond.
Right now, her mom says, “Katie would rather be in theater than anywhere else. She loves the intensity of rehearsals, she loves the shows.”
– Amanda Allen
Garland Jones is from Marietta, but his dreams are much bigger than that small city can hold.
In little more than a year, Back-N-Pack, the organization Garland founded to help alleviate childhood hunger, has given backpacks filled with food to more than 2,000 children in the Atlanta area. And it all started while holding a video camera at a cousin’s dance recital.
“I saw teachers from a local school there helping refugee children,” Garland said. “I told my mom I wanted to help out.”
This 17-year-old hasn’t just helped out; he has raised $4,500 and provided 15,000 pounds of food to feed families from more than 60 countries.
Garland’s parents were supportive from the beginning. “My wife is the ultimate organizer,” Eddie Jones says. “She sat with him and came up with a plan.”
“We have donation sites like churches and businesses where we collect the food,” Garland says. “We also use those places as distribution centers. Those centers know the people who need the items.”
To acknowledge his commitment and success, his mother, Carlia Jones, nominated him for the Build-A-Bear Workshop Huggable Heroes, an award program that recognizes young people who are making a difference. Garland was one of 10 winners in 2013, chosen from more than 1,000 nominations. He received $10,000, which included an educational scholarship, a donation to a charity of his choice and a trip to St. Louis where he learned leadership skills.
Garland wants to increase the reach of Back-N-Pack, taking it outside of Atlanta and maybe even to the entire United States. Heading off to college next year to study film, he knows that no matter where he goes, his connection to home and family is what matters.
“My father taught me that you have to take care of your house. I have a heart for my city, and I will always want to give back to my community and remember where I am from.”
– Sherry V. Crawley
Dancing is Jewanda Lanier’s passion, and she has a “Fabulous Feet” award to prove it.
Jewanda, 16, of Dallas, began dancing at age 5, and does it all: tap, ballet, jazz, hip-hop, and more. This year she was a “Fabulous Feet” and platinum winner at the Stage One National Dance Competition in Gatlinburg, Tenn., with a tap dance that wowed the judges.
And that was not her favorite performance. As a high school freshman, she went to Washington, D.C., for a performance honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Jewanda and three other teens portrayed the four little girls who died in a church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963.
“It was an educational and wonderful experience for me,” she says. “I met so many people and grew so much professionally.”
A junior at Paulding County High School, Jewanda practices dance two to three hours a day at Georgia Metropolitan Dance Theatre and is a student teacher at Nu Star Maker Performing Arts, but she still maintains a 4.0 academic average. She also finds time to volunteer at her brother’s school library and for Special Olympics, and to perform for church groups and in musicals such as “Footloose,” recently at the Earl Smith Strand Theatre in Marietta. She and her 11-year-old brother, Khalil Jackson, also donated their own backpacks and helped collect and fill other backpacks as part of a project for their church, Power of God International.
Jewanda plans to attend college at a strong performing arts school such as Point Park University in Pittsburg, Pa., or the Julliard School in New York, majoring in dance and sports medicine.
“My hope for her is that she achieves every goal she sets and that she moves with God with those goals,” says her mother, LaWanda Jackson. “She’s such a capable young lady. I expect excellence from her, but I don’t push her to do what’s not in her heart to do. She wants to sing, dance and be a great actress, and I hope and expect she will get everything in life she works hard for.”
– Amanda Allen
Ranking in the Top 10 in a national wrestling competition? Check. Taking all Advanced Placement classes? Check. What’s next on the to-do list for George Gavalas? A law degree and an Olympic medal. That’s all.
This determined 16-year-old from Dunwoody started wrestling in middle school. Now in 11th grade at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, George has consistently performed well at state and regional competitions.
“I enjoy being under a lot of pressure,” he says. “Wrestling wears me down mentally and physically. I love that feeling of fighting through adversity and pain.”
His training routine is intense. “When preparing for major competitions, I wrestle once or twice a day,” George says. “I wrestle hard and don’t take anything easy.”
He applies this same rigor to his academics. “I think of my classes and my homework as practice, and I think of tests and big exams as a game.”
Katerina Gavalas, George’s mother, is proud of her son for his work ethic. But early on, watching her son wrestle was tough. “I got so overwhelmed at the first statewide competition,” she admits. “He was 13 or 14, and I lost myself in the moment. I found myself on the mat screaming for him. The referee had to ask me to move!”
George credits his parents with teaching him to value physical fitness. “I always go to work out thinking it is going to make me happier and give me a better outlook on school and spending time with my family.”
“He has always been the kind of person who sets his mind on something and goes after it with everything he’s got,” Katerina says.
“My goal is to be an Olympic champion,” George said. “I’m just waiting for it to click with me and I feel like my time is coming.”
– Sherry V. Crawley
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