University of Mississippi Gospel Choir members shouted "Hallelulah!" at the Monday kickoff event of Black History Month upon learning that an anonymous donor has given $27,000 to establish the first endowment to support their contributions to campus life and provide leadership activities.
Brandi Hephner LaBanc, UM vice chancellor for student affairs, made the surprise announcement right before the choir was set to perform.
"I was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of this donor and knew immediately that this would be a transformational gift for the Gospel Choir," Hephner LaBanc said. "In all honesty, I welled up a bit.
"Aside from the beautiful voices and inspiring gospel lyrics, this choir is one of our university's premier student organizations. Choir members have earned this stature and are asked to perform at numerous campus and public events because they represent the University of Mississippi in such a professional artistic manner."
According to the memorandum of agreement, the funds are to be used to sponsor an annual retreat to explore the purpose and possibilities of the choir and its members as leaders on campus. Other support is to be directed to inviting a distinguished choir director to be in residence for a short period, as well as to hire musicians to accompany practice and performances, help develop its repertoire and project its image at the university and beyond.
Founded in 1974 as the Black Student Union Choir (later changing its name to the UM Gospel Choir), this "no-audition" group steadily consists of 100-plus students, including 20 who run its operations. Choir advisers are Danielle Sims and E.J. Edney.
The anonymous donor, who has admired the student organization for years, said the university has often called upon the Gospel Choir to be "its face and voice." The donor also found it noteworthy that the choir experience provides a nurturing environment for its members.
"According to the experiences of founding students and current student members, the Gospel Choir has always served as a place for individuals from underrepresented backgrounds – most of whom have been and continue to be African-American – where they can feel they belong during their educational journey at the university," the donor said.
"This call underlies the initiative to support Gospel Choir members during their educational experiences, providing ample resources to nurture their successes in the choir and as enrolled students at the university. Hopefully, this endowment will encourage choir members to explore fully the leadership role of the Gospel Choir and to focus on their own development as students and leaders."
The "unexpected gift" is welcomed and appreciated, said Shawnboda D. Mead, director of UM's Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement.
"I am beyond excited for the choir," Mead said. "This generous gift is a testament to the impact the choir has had and continues to have on our campus. I'm confident this gift will allow the choir to continue expanding its reach and serving the university community.
"To see and hear the UM Gospel Choir perform is always a special experience. The choir continues to attract an amazingly talented group of students and provides them with a family atmosphere."
It is important for college students to participate in extracurricular activities, Hephner LaBanc said, encouraging donors to consider making investments in student organizations.
"The college experience at Ole Miss is holistic in nature," she said. "It extends beyond the classroom and into the full experience of our students while they are enrolled. Student organizations provide the opportunities for our students to put their intellectual and creative talents into action. Through private gift support, organizations are able to expand their capacity for leadership and educational opportunities."
To finance the choir's first album in 1999, "Send Up the Praise," choir members undertook a $14,000 fundraising effort. The successful campaign led to Malaco Records' support of the live project with a mobile studio and mixing support.
After hearing a copy of the live recording, the label's executives decided to sign the group. The resulting CD was nominated for a 2000 Grammy Award for Best Gospel Performance by a Duo or Group.
The donor has directed $2,000 of the gift to an account for immediate use, and $25,000 goes to establish the endowment. Endowed funds are held permanently and managed by the University of Mississippi Foundation. The annual income generated from an endowment is directed to support the program, scholarship, faculty position, etc., named in the endowment's creation.
Any individual or organization can make a contribution to help build the UM Gospel Choir Endowment by sending a check to the University of Mississippi Foundation, 406 University Ave., Oxford, MS 38655. The fund should be noted in the check's memo line. Donations also can be made online at http://www.umfoundation.com/makeagift. For more information, contact Brett Barefoot, development officer at email@example.com or 662-915-2711.
By Tina Hahn