Antoinette Rooks appears to be a shy little girl, twirling her long ponytail and standing on tippy-toes in her black Mary Janes. But when it's her turn to sing a solo, the pint-size fifth-grader grabs the microphone, cocks it to the side and belts out a tune that seems to have come from someone older, more experienced.
"I guess I do well because this is what I love to do. It makes me feel like a star," she said.
With the pending release of a compact disc and tape bearing their songs, many of the other 60 members of the Voices of Hope children's choir are feeling like stars these days, too.
The choir, based at New Song Community Church on North Gilmor Street in Sandtown-Winchester, is a hot item on the church concert circuit.
Last fall, it presented 12 concerts from inner-city Baltimore to McLean, Va. It sang at Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's inauguration in December and recently wowed a Presbyterian women's convention at a downtown hotel with its contemporary gospel tunes.
"They really took us by storm. These staid Presbyterian types got out of their straitjackets and were clapping and swaying," the Rev. Ron Steel, senior pastor at Chapelgate Presbyterian Church in Marriottsville, said of the choir's fall performance at his church.
The choir, composed of youths ranging from preschoolers to eighth-graders, could become better known than the other components of New Song's 10-year-old urban ministry, which is dedicated to helping residents heal their scarred neighborhood.
Sandtown Habitat for Humanity renovates vacant homes. The church offers spiritual guidance and educational programs. A jobs program has helped more than 100 residents find work. And the health center provides basic care to area residents.
The success of the choir "has been a surprise to me," said the Rev. Steve Smallman, a New Song co-pastor, keyboardist and songwriter for the choir. "We were all caught a little off guard."
That's understandable, because when the choir was begun three years ago, its members "couldn't sing," Mr. Smallman said. "So we just began working on the basics."
It took about six months of almost daily after-school rehearsals before the youngsters developed the harmonious tones they displayed yesterday afternoon at the dedication of a house on North Calhoun Street that had been renovated by Habitat.
Mr. Smallman said one reason for the choir's success is that he writes new songs or rewrites standards to a rhythm that shows off the youths' energy and drive. Many of the lyrics have "grit," reflecting their environment, he said.
The Voices of Hope tape and compact disc will be in local stores by late summer. To order one now, call the church at (410) 728-2816.
Hear the voices
To hear excerpts from "Voices of Hope," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6135. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.