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Superior Court Rising Stars Keep Kids On the Beat and Off the Street

July 5, 2007 — After 26 years on St. Thomas, the USVI Superior Court Rising Stars have come to the big island, giving 100 St. Croix kids a chance to learn to play the steel pan for the first time this summer.
Classes started on June 18 at Hanna’s Rest next to Kama Kris hardware. They run until 4 p.m. every weekday until July 27. The Superior Court’s dropout-prevention program teaches kids citizenship and helps them with schoolwork while instructing in the art of steel pan.
Superior Court Presiding Judge Darryl Donohue oversees the program.
“Once the kids are back in school in the fall, we will continue as an after-school program,” he said. “The game plan is to have as viable a program on St. Croix as it is on St. Thomas.”
The program is in its fledgling stage and there are still a few people to hire, Donohue said. But it is up and running now. On Thursday, after a scant two weeks, the band of new musicians sounded very professional playing the Star Spangled Banner. They already have their first gig lined up: an event at UVI.
The program offers young people a complete package.
“The kids can have tutorials helping them with homework, too,” Donohue said. “That is the thrust; keep them in school and out of harm’s way with respect to other elements in their respective neighborhoods. Hopefully we can keep them out of the criminal-justice system over the long haul.”
To stay in the program, kids must behave themselves and maintain passing grades.
All the students make a pledge: “I promise to obey the rules of the Rising Stars; to stay in school and fully educate myself; to conduct myself in a decent manner at all times and obey all laws of the U.S. Virgin Islands and the U.S. of A.”
Participation in the program helps keep kids out of trouble elsewhere, organizers say.
“If you have 85 or 95 kids here, at least these kids are not in trouble — they’re right here,” said Rising Stars Coordinator Noella Valmont. “And if you’re a parent working and hear on the radio about some kids getting into a bad situation, if your kid is in this program, you know where they are and you know what they are doing. Most parents work, and there are many families where the mother or the father are working and taking care of the kids by themselves. It’s all about taking care of the kids.”
The kids love the program, acccording to Chief Instructor Henry V. Potter.
“We teach them how to take care of the instrument,” he said. “How to take it down, play it and return it back.”
Born and raised on St. Croix, Potter has lived all over the world during a career in the military. Most recently a Miami resident, he recently retired and returned home to teach. Having first learned the art here on St. Croix as a child, Potter taught the steel pan to Navy Band members for years. He oversees instruction with the help of several other professional musicians and of more experienced high school student volunteers.
Even though they just began and parents had only a few weeks’ notice, the program has already proven very popular.
“My gosh, we’ve had to turn away so many children,” Valmont said. “It’s a shame. There were probably 250 who wanted to sign up. This year we were able to offer it for free on St. Croix, while on St. Thomas the program is so popular they charge a $250 fee.”
Potter was around 12 and walking through Christiansted one day when he heard the instrument’s distinctive sound.
“I followed the sound and it was coming out of the Lutheran Church,” Potter said. “So I went in and followed it upstairs, where there was a group of about 10 or so kids playing. The man teaching them said I could learn too, if I wanted.”
After high school, Potter joined the military and got sent stateside.
“In the States, when people hear the pan they say, ‘Hey, what is that?’” Potter said. “They showed an interest. So I sent home for new pans. … I’ve played all over the world: in Mombassa, in Israel, Turkey, Palma, Valencia, everywhere. As I became very good, they asked me to teach. When you really enjoy what you do, it isn’t work at all. I’m very blessed.”
The Rising Stars were founded more than 25 years ago by then-Superior Court Presiding Judge Verne A. Hodge. When the Territorial Court’s statistics revealed that high school dropouts committed more than 80 percent of crimes in the territory, Hodge sought a program to prevent school dropout and juvenile delinquency.
Hodge’s daughters played with the Wess Stars Steelband. Seeing the way kids were attracted to playing in the band and the discipline it demanded, Hodge put two and two together. The program began in the summer of 1981 with 25 students on St. Thomas and has grown in popularity ever since.
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