Performers take stage to help local students

Gary Powell and Whitney Morse perform to support New Covenant United Methodist Church’s efforts to provide students at Wildwood Elementary and Middle High School with backpacks filled with supplies.

Whitney Morse loves any opportunity to use her skills as a performer to give back to the community. And this year’s Backpacks4Kids Cabaret series is no different. Morse is one of several local performers taking part in the five-concert series in May, June and July for New Covenant United Methodist Church’s Backpacks4Kids outreach ministry. All net proceeds from the series will support the ministry’s efforts to provide backpacks filled with school supplies to students at Wildwood Elementary and Middle High School.

Morse and Gary Powell performed in the first concert in the series on May 20.

“I think this year will be a challenging year for many families to get school supplies for their kiddos, so it’s extra rewarding knowing in some small way I have contributed to New Covenant’s efforts,” Morse said.

Instead of one big concert, this year the outreach ministry will bring in local favorites, each with his or her own musical contributions, for five concerts, said Angie Rose, associate director of worship.

Rose and Sean Pollock, director of worship, have been involved with Backpacks4Kids since 2015, and this year’s series marks the seventh annual fundraiser.

Fulfilling the Need

They will host and perform with the other artists on Friday, June 10 and 24, and the final concert on July 1.

“We are involved in many ministries and outreach projects at our church, but Backpacks4Kids is one we hold dear to our hearts,” Rose said. “It benefits our children and families directly by providing backpacks and school supplies to the Wildwood Elementary and Middle High School students. These are costly for families and extremely important for our children’s education and providing local assistance is our annual goal.”

To fulfill that need, the outreach ministry needs to raise around $30,000 to $40,000 Rose said.

The Orion Trio, including Jerry Bruno on drums, Thomas Pizzi on piano, Jerry Bravo on bass and featured artist John DePaola will perform contemporary jazz and jazz standards at 7 p.m. Friday at New Covenant.

Bruno, of the Village of Briar Meadow, has been performing in the Praise Band at New Covenant.

“This particular ministry is important for me because if we can put backpacks on kids, (we should),” Bruno said. “It’s a beautiful gift for someone. There’s something about having that new item that helps with your self esteem, makes you want to carry your books to school. So it’s a great cause.”

Local Talent

The performance will include pieces like “Land of Make Believe”by Chuck Mangione and “Blue Rondo à la Turk” by Dave Brubeck. And it will mark the Central Florida-based trio’s first performance together in over a year.

“When we play (a concert like this), there’s a lot of soloing and it gives us an opportunity to be expressive,” Bruno said.

Another Backpacks4Kids regular, Bill Doherty, has been involved with the Backpacks4Kids concert fundraiser for years, as an accompanist and occasionally as a solo performer.

This year he helped design the upcoming show he’s performing with Scotty Tomas and Victoria Sexton at 7 p.m. June 10 at New Covenant. Doherty also will accompany Heather Ard at her one-woman cabaret, featuring popular Broadway hits and more, at 7 p.m. June 24 at New Covenant.

“(Scotty and Victoria) are a dynamite duo and I know they both have a passion for helping kids,” Doherty said.

Doherty shares that passion.

“It’s always a thrill to be a part of this effort to make sure local kids have what they need to learn and grow,” he said.

How to Help

At the first concert in the series, Morse performed some of her favorite tunes from past roles as well as some she hopes to work on some day.

“The audience seemed to really be having a good time,” Morse said. “They were very kind. Angie said many of them were in tears at some of the more tender moments.”

Morse also will match donations outside ticket sales for the rest of this series up to $2,000. Those wishing to make a donation can do so at

Tickets for the Backpacks4Kids Cabarets are available online at or at any Villages Box Office location.

Staff writer Liz Coughlin can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5304, or