SPECIAL REPORT: 'Empowering the Arts'

MONROE -- On most nights at the New Light Baptist Church on 4th Street, you'll see actors memorizing their lines. 

Rehearsing for their upcoming production, ‘A Raisin in the Sun’. But these characters are playing bigger roles in real life, inspiring the youth to follow their dreams.

“There are just too many dreams that are dying...and that's a loss to all of us,” said Thelma Merrells, a church leader and director of the New Light Economic Empowerment Corporation.

The NLEEC hopes to make the arts -- be it music, dance, acting or painting -- more accessible to the youth.

“What can we as a church, go out in the community to go out and make a difference” said Merrells.

NLEEC is the brainchild of pastor James Johnson and his late wife Nancy, whose vision was to improve the community. Merrells says this program has steadily grown, working to change the lives of the area teens one by one.

"Rome was not built in a day; you've got to start somewhere," she said.

The organization has provided back to school rallies, health fairs, and other events to the community free of charge.

When Wossman high school students did a painting project at the church's neighborhood community garden, something clicked in Merrells' mind.

“That was really when I realized all the talent and the skills, that we have here, so we don't want those dreams to dry as a raisin in the sun and just tossed away, we want to honor those skills, and give them a platform to express them," she said.

Pashen Sims, a Monroe native and director of their upcoming production, first jumped into arts when she moved to Atlanta.

“I noticed that the accessibility was just everywhere, whether you were interested in dance, acting” said Sims.

When she moved back home, she says she noticed parts of Monroe lacked a creative spirit.

“More positive things we can offer the youth, the better," said Sims.

"The arts were not as prevalent and you know in hard times, that is one of the programs that’s cut first,” said Merrells.

Some of the young actors in this production have seen it for themselves.

"I've seen so many kids that I've grown up with go down the wrong path, and they had so much potential and they had so much talent, but they had no body there to say here's a place, here's where you can express that," said Jayliah Harris a junior at Wossman High School and the narrator for the play.

"There's a lot of people out here that has a lot of talent, but they don't really want to show it,” said Stephen Bowman, a dancer and understudy in the play.

Jacarruem Bradford stayed busy throughout high school and college -- he's now giving back as a teacher.

"Arts was a way I could just try to stay out of trouble, from playing the violin, being in various plays," he said. "You never know what you're capable of doing until you do it."

D.J. Davis plays the main character in the church play. As a teacher and coach in West Monroe, he knows teens need a way to express themselves.

"Express themselves through positive arts such as singing, dancing, acting, any kind of performing," he said. "It takes them off the street, and we've always been told, an idle mind is the devils workshop."

What makes this program stand out is that it's free.

“There is no charge, it really helps parents, single parents, and grandparents, and those who are raising their children," said Davis.

"In most areas, you just really have to pay for stuff like this, you can do it do yourself and for free," said Bowman.

"It's something that's right here in the center of the neighborhood, you can walk to it, you see it everyday," said Bradford.

At the end of the day, Merrells' hopes this program encourages area youth to never doubt their potential.

"We're creative beings. It’s what we were put here for. And if we were able to express that creativity in a positive way, we wouldn't have to worry about programs to keep kids from going to jail," said Merrells.

The production of 'A Raisin in the Sun' will premiere on July 12 at the Monroe Civic Center arena.

The organization is still looking for the production. You can reach them by calling 318-322-4790. The church is located at 1623 S. 4th Street in Monroe.

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