Why be good when you can be great? Why be great when you can be exceptional? When Marshall White founded the UNITY Performing Arts Foundation (UNITY) nearly 23 years ago, he adopted a mantra that has persevered. Today, “Excellence and Nothing Less” is a guiding principle for many of the students who were involved with UNITY during their formative years.
“That has kept me grounded throughout my adult endeavors,” says UNITY alumnus Antonio Beasley. “It was the intangible exercises that shaped my character, like being prepared, promptness, professionalism, working within a team, memorization and many more.”
“For numerous students, UNITY was a foundation of the principles and concepts of responsibility and accountability,” adds Dr. Khalid Griffin, who joined the group as an 8th grader in 2001.
“As I look back as an adult, I see how UNITY set me up for success in many areas of my life,” agrees Jordan Applegate. “The secret sauce is the character and leadership development that you receive at UNITY. I can confidently say that UNITY helped set me up for success on my journey of leadership and professional development.”
Applegate has a unique perspective. He was a student, came back to volunteer as an alum, worked as the tour manager for an international trip, and now sits on the board of directors.
“Our community has never really embraced the gem that I believe UNITY is. It’s a world-class organization that has world recognition as champions. It’s quite literally shaping the leaders of tomorrow,” Applegate stresses.
Indeed, that is the purpose behind UNITY. Using the arts as a way to bring students together, White has dedicated his life to creating singers, musicians, speakers, writers and dancers. More importantly, though, he’s tirelessly working to create good people.
“We focus on what we call a holistic empowerment concept,” explains White. “Holistic meaning that it affects the entire child. The child’s mentality, character, attitude, mannerisms, personality and intellect. It encompasses all of those things along with the artistic capacity of the child, and the creative capacity of the child. Our goal is to make sure a child is successful at home, school, church, work and in their community. If they’re having issues at home, we deal with that child from a domestic perspective. If there have been problems at school, we deal with that child from an educational and academic perspective. If there have been problems at work, we deal with that child from an occupational perspective. That’s unheard of in an arts program. Elsewhere it tends to be very black and white — you learn how to sing, dance or write, and then you go home.”
Members of UNITY are excellent performers. Its signature program, the Voices of Unity Youth Choir, has earned global accolades. The group has won a World Grand Champion title as well as multiple gold and silver medals at the World Choir Games. In 2016, White and Applegate led the group on a four-country concert tour that included Italy, Vatican City, Austria and Hungary. But at the core of the program is a desire to mold and shape the leaders of tomorrow. Alumnae Sabra Shade and Aaryn Eady say the lessons they learned at UNITY were critical to their future success.
“This is a place where you get to learn things about yourself and develop skills you aren’t aware you have — skills you cannot get from being part of an athletic program or participating in other extracurricular activities,” Shade says. “The diversity of this group is the heart of this program, and that’s what our community needs most.”
“One of the biggest life lessons that I learned from Mr. White was ‘never say no to an opportunity to grow.’ Be prepared to say ‘yes’ to opportunities because this is where personal growth and development happen. He would challenge and empower us to do things that made us stretch beyond our comfort zone, and that was ultimately to benefit our character and leadership development,” recalls Eady.
Looking back at the past two decades, White is extremely proud of the impact the organization has had in our community. Over 500 students who have participated in UNITY have gone onto college. Many of them have returned to Fort Wayne, launched successful careers and are actively involved in making the community better.
Antonio Beasley, for example, is a regional business manager for a leading orthopedic spine company. Aaryn Eady is a regional representative for an insurance company. Khalid Griffin earned a doctorate degree and is now a pastor and a Fort Wayne Community Schools principal at Blackhawk Middle School. Applegate is an executive at Sweetwater and Shade is a registered nurse.
“We’re really seeing the fruits of the program,” says Applegate. “Some of us early members are now emerging as today’s leaders.”
“Talent development is where UNITY has been making an impact for the last 20 years. Since 2000, the organization has equipped hundreds of young people of diverse background with the skills to enter the 21st century market and make lasting, positive impacts on our community,” Eady adds.
Shade believes so strongly in UNITY and its mission that two of her children are now enrolled. She and the other alums are confident that the program will continue to encourage and inspire today’s youth, preparing them to be the best version of themselves.
“In any room that I’m in, I feel like I belong there. A lot of that has to do with the confidence I gained through UNITY,” Griffin says. “I learned to be confident in what I have to offer, and also be willing to learn and get better from those around me.”
UNITY is proud to be a company-in-residence at Purdue University Fort Wayne since its beginning in 2000. It is also on the campus of the Ivy Tech Coliseum Campus, where its state-of-the-art program and training center is located. UNITY has launched a $5 million campaign called “Rising with Purpose.”
“We want the capital campaign to help sustain the organization for years to come,” says founder/CEO Marshall White. “A lot of times people look at capital campaigns as building programs and we’re looking at it as a capacity building program.”
In UNITY’s five-phase vision plan, leaders hope to build a facility in downtown Fort Wayne that would encompass arts training, technology training, leadership training and pre-college development. In addition, they want to launch the UNITY model in different cities across the country.
UNITY is currently accepting new members between the ages of 7 and 19. To find out more information about enrollment and how to get involved, visit upaf.com or call (260) 481-6719.
Address: 2101 E. Coliseum Blvd., Fort Wayne, Indiana 46808
Phone: (260) 481-6719