On Saturday, I was exhilarated to sing in the 12th annual American Sunrise Gala and Celebrity Song Slam, a charity event created in 2001 by former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros and his wife, Mary Alice, as a way to raise money for families living on the city’s Westside.
As a contestant, I had the pleasure of competing alongside four other members of the media: Ken Slavin, a public relations consultant and jazz crooner; Eileen Teves, award-winning journalist, feature reporter and co-host of Great Day SA on KENS-5; Dave Rios, morning radio host on KONO 101.1; and Jerome Roberson of True Vision, a minister of music, worship leader, choir director, song writer, recording artist and vocal producer/trainer for more than 30 years.
The evening was an extravaganza, complete with cabaret songs and dances, awards, and recognition of youth who benefit from the nonprofit community builder organization.
While the impact of American Sunrise’s efforts on youth can’t be measured by a smoothly choreographed event held one night a year, it’s a big one. Cisneros attests to it each year on the stage, complete with videos and testimonials from adults speaking about how the organization has helped their children learn English and math in elementary school, earn a high school diploma, and move on to college through the American Sunrise Learning Center.
Within the last year, the organization has awarded American Sunrise student alumni scholarships for students to attend college at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Texas A&M at Kingsville, the University of Texas Health Science Center-San Antonio, and Schreiner University, said American Sunrise executive director Yolanda “Lolly” Byington.
American Sunrise serves a one-square-mile area including some of the poorest census tracts in the city’s Westside. Formerly known as Prospect Hill, it has always been home for the Cisneros family, who were born, raised, educated, married in the neighborhood.
Convincing people to donate money is a talent, and this organization is to be commended for its efforts. By offering a unique model that affords residents the ongoing opportunity to interact with the founders of the organization and discuss basic needs for themselves and their children, American Sunrise is truly a great cause, and the celebration reflected it. It’s like one big family reuniting on stage and in the audience year after year.
Cisneros also honored two San Antonians for their years of service: Norma Rodriguez, who retired as City Clerk of San Antonio after 23 years and was the first woman, first Hispanic, and the longest-tenured City Clerk in the history of the City of San Antonio, and Fr. Virgilio Elizondo, who grew from humble beginnings as the son of struggling Mexican immigrants to be recognized as the “father of U.S. Latino religious thought,” hailed by Time magazine as one of the top spiritual innovators of the 21st century.
Individual plates for the fundraiser ranged from $100 for individuals to $25,000 for premium seating at two tables of 10 people, and when I saw people filling into the ballroom to eat, I started to rush with adrenaline, even though I knew I wouldn’t be singing until after 9 p.m. and that three other contestants would sing before me.
I’ve been on stage in one form or another since kindergarten, performing in dance recitals, reciting lines from my favorite poems, wearing pioneer garb and even playing the famous World War II-era pilot, Amelia Earhart, in a flight cap that I’m pretty sure my mom bought for me at an Army surplus store.
When it comes to singing and dancing on stage, style almost always trumps substance. You could be the greatest singer on earth, but if you don’t smile, project, or get into the act, the audience is not going to respond. Plus, there’s all the build-up of adrenalin before the performance to self-manage and encourage your fellow performers: Yes, it’s hard to be the first act, but it’s also an advantage because you set the standard. The audience will have their fresh eyes on you. And for the record, it’s fine to eat before singing, no one will notice. (The dinner was great, by the way.)
Even with all this pre-performance negotiation with one’s gut, however, nothing quite compares to actually being up there, belting out a song.
First on stage was Navarra Williams, CEO of SAMMinistries and winner of last year’s Song Slam, who performed a quaking rendition of “My Girl.”
Each act that came before me had something different to offer. Slavin jazzed up the crowd with a megawatt smile and his rendition of “Mack the Knife,” and the panel of three judges on stage offered him positive reviews. Teves – a TV pro – gave a glowing, energetic performance of “Last Dance.” In a bright green dress and terrific stage presence, the audience and judges loved her. Rios sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” engaging the crowd by getting everyone to pronounce singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s name. He even went into the audience toward the end of the song.
Cisneros gave each of us a generous introduction. He recognized me as a writer with The Rivard Report, emphasizing all the sounds in my name, “Nee-kas,” and even welcomed me back to San Antonio before I came up. Cisneros is a charming presenter.
Though I can get into a song, my challenge has always been remembering context: I was not at the Newport Folk Festival. This was the American Sunrise Gala. Think pineapples. Think Elvis. The stage at the Omni Hotel wasn’t like stages of yore, where I looked into the crowd and all I saw was blackness. Here, I saw every single face. They were smiling, and many were singing along. Though a little nerve-wracking, all in all, singing “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was great fun.
I don’t know if anyone was prepared for Roberson’s performance of “Endless Love.” He had a female accompaniment, and together, their voices were spine-tinglingly good. Roberson was the emcee at our rehearsal at the Temple of Praise Ministries the other night, and his experience in a religious setting really shined.
The two finalists were Teves and Roberson, who sang a Frankie Valli hit and an inspirational song. Teves won, taking home two round-trip tickets from Southwest Airlines to anywhere the company will fly. The other contestants received an attractive blue glass trophy.
Participating in the American Sunrise Song Slam reminded me what a talent it is to enthuse and engage people on stage, whether you’re a performer, politician, or journalist. It also reminded me how important it is to have an education.
For too many San Antonians, however, a good education remains a distant dream that isn’t magically cured overnight. I left the party confident that the organization is committed to its goal of raising more money for Westside families, and I hope to see many great stories about San Antonio’s Westside families emerge in the months and years ahead.
*Featured/top image: Former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros honors Norma Rodriguez, the first woman, the first Hispanic, and the longest tenured City Clerk in the history of the City of San Antonio, at the American Sunrise Gala and Celebrity Song Slam. Courtesy photo.