A harvest of harmonies

Concert: A food drive and an accompanying gospel performance have grown into a holiday tradition at a Columbia middle school.

November 21, 2001|By Donna W. Payne | Donna W. Payne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Principal Sterlind Burke is a big man with a big job. The educator, with a build like a football lineman, is top administrator at Patuxent Valley Middle School in Columbia.

When he arrived in 1996, Burke said, "I came in here as a very different person for this community ... ethnically ... style-wise. ... I wanted [them] to see part of me beyond the guy who came in basically to be the strict disciplinarian, to reorganize the school.

"They needed to know that they were dealing with someone who had a sense of faith that was ... open to all people, that supported all people."

Soon after his arrival, then-PTA President Trona Vollmerhausen suggested that schoolchildren collect food for the nearby Savage Food Bank. Burke saw the idea as a way to unite the school and to reveal an unexpected side of his personality to the community - by involving his family in the project.

Burke tapped another newcomer, social studies teacher Chana Tacka, to launch a fall food drive. Burke, who is the seventh in a family of 11 children, also recruited some of his brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, and his wife and two children - all gospel singers - to provide the entertainment for the event's culminating celebration.

Today, five years later, the "Food for Our Harvest" campaign and gospel concert have become a school tradition. The project has grown in size and community involvement over the years.

Burke calls Tacka's efforts to organize it "magical."

Members of the Burke Family Singers came from five states to perform their annual concert Saturday night to a packed house in the school gymnasium.

The audience packed the bleachers and nearly filled an extra 200 chairs. Teachers donated cookies and punch and decorated the serving tables in fall colors for the intermission refreshments.

The price of admission was a donation of canned or boxed food.

Eighth-graders led the drive, which satisfies their state-mandated community service requirement.

All the grades and classes competed to see which could amass the most contributions.

"The teachers have just been as enthusiastic as the kids," Tacka said.

Some teachers paired off their classes for head-to-head collection battles. This year, the seventh-graders edged out the eighth-graders for top honors, and two individual classes collected more than 1,000 items each. The final tally of 13,087 was nearly double that of previous years.

"With the number of cans we're talking about now, especially this year," said Tacka, "it will take care of Savage for the holidays, but then also they'll feed out to other food banks.

"Young kids ... can make a difference," she added. "These kids have made a huge difference. They're going to feed a whole community and many more."

The concert area Saturday was decorated with some of the collected food items. Cans and boxes were piled high on hay bales and on two ladders that reached to the tops of the basketball hoops in the gym.

The evening began with 23 members of Burke's family, in one long line led by three small girls, marching in from a side door to the slow, majestic beat of "Our God Is An Awesome God."

The group, dressed in black and white, sang without accompaniment except for the clapping of their hands, the beat of their feet and the solo voices of the members. "My oldest brother and two sisters began singing ... maybe 55 years ago as the Rosebuds," Burke said. The group grew "as more kids were added."

Burke recalled the "nerve-wracking" experience of sitting in a large church congregation as a young child and hearing someone say, "Oh, I see the Burke children are here. I wonder if they could come up and give us a couple of selections."

The grown-up Burke children and their children and grandchildren delighted the Columbia audience. Concertgoers clapped to the beat of the all-gospel music lineup.

The program featured a song that Burke said is always requested, "Amazing Grace," as well as "Baby in a Barren Land," a piece originally written by Burke's brother Wendell for the first Patuxent Valley concert.

Eighth-graders Tarisha Sanders and Janay Bryant, who collected food as a way "to give it back to the community," were enthusiastic about the evening's concert. "It's gospel," said Tarisha. "It touches the real life points. It gets down to the emotions."

The evening ended with a standing ovation from the audience and the presentation of a "Declaration of Thanks" signed by representatives of the sixth, seventh and eighth grades. The proclamation was given to the Burke Family Singers to "long remind you of your spiritual contribution to this community."

"I just love putting it out to the community and getting it back," Burke said. "This community gives it back, and that's why my family makes a strong effort to get here. It's a good-time evening to share time with good people."

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