Talented Teens: Keeping City Students Focused, Positive
December 08, 2008
His first year at Fox Middle School, 13-year-old Piul Makai had no friends. Fellow students taunted the Sudanese native about his dark skin and slight accent.
This year he joined Talented Teens, an after-school program at the Hartford school that teaches students to dance, rap or write poetry.
"When I first joined the dance group, I didn't know many people and I didn't know Simeon," Piul said, referring to his friend Simeon Williams. "Now I talk to him a lot and I talk to the girls."
Talented Teens has been like a surrogate family to Piul and his peers, while also providing a way to address social issues relevant to their lives.
Piul's going through the "girl phase," says the group's director, Kimberly Bridges, known to students as "Ms. Kim." More than just a director, Bridges is a cross between a strict military sergeant and a loving mother who keeps tabs on her charges.
For example, Simeon, 13, has been acting up at school. He also wants girls to notice him, Bridges said.
"The love is first, but the discipline is first and foremost," Bridges said. "You have to strive to have good grades, positive attitude at home, at school. It's not just me teaching them dance. They're a part of my life. We're a family," she said.
Talented Teens is funded by Catholic Charities in Hartford. It's about more than performing. It's about life, said Bridges.
Every step, word and move is meant to not only make audiences aware of social issues, but also to help her students as they grow, Bridges said. One of her top priorities is building self-esteem, something she struggled with as a teenager.
"It just makes you not care about you," she said.
Talented Teens arrived at Fox Middle School three years ago. Bridges had founded a group with the same name in Boston in 1989 after moving there from Hartford. Several years later, she returned to Connecticut and continued reaching out to teens and children.
"I know all kids like to dance and rap and that's what I sell to get them in," Bridges said.
In addition to Talented Teens, there's the Gifted Ones, a group Bridges teaches in her spare time. They often perform together, donning pastel tie-dye T-shirts with glittery lettering. While a majority of members are in their teens, age doesn't matter.
Williams says the subjects the groups focus on are "real."
"I think it connects to everybody," he said.
Perry Mapp, 18, a member of the Gifted Ones whose velvety voice soars through an a cappella number about reaching "one dream," has been with Bridges for roughly nine years.
"I could be in the streets getting into trouble, but this group keeps me positive," he said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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