PALMETTO — Fans squealed with delight when “American Idol” star Syesha Mercado took the stage Thursday night at the Manatee Convention Center.
Aliyah Hurt danced in her seat next to her friend with her mother sitting a couple of seats away. The 9-year-old wore a Syesha T-shirt hanging down to her knees.
“She can really show she cares when she sings. She can really sing her heart out. That’s what singing is all about,” said Aliyah, of Myakka City.
Aliyah, who enjoys singing, and her mother, Karina Hurt, regularly watched Syesha perform on “American Idol” last season.
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“Normally I wouldn’t bring her to something on a weeknight, but it’s for a good cause. It’s low cost and it supports Syesha,” said Hurt, a Manatee County school social worker.
The money raised from Syesha’s performance will be directed to the Manatee Education Foundation and earmarked for Amer-I-Can.
Syesha’s sister, Xtavia Bailey, is a facilitator for the Amer-I-Can program, which helps prepare students by teaching them life skills.
The program is a 60-hour self-improvement and life-skills program geared toward steering at-risk students away from gangs, drugs and crime. Last year, more than 150 students graduated from the program.
The program remains endangered by budget cuts.
Organizers are hopeful the concert will raise an estimated $50,000.
Law enforcement agencies including Bradenton Police Department, Palmetto Police Department and Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, as well as the foundation, supported the Amer-I-Can program this past year.
Palmetto Police Chief Garry Lowe, who attended the concert, said the city of Palmetto donated $10,000 this past year.
“It teaches kids to believe in themselves. It teaches them self esteem. I think it makes a difference,” he said. “They can go a little bit outside of themselves and become a better person by going the extra mile.”
Next year, it’s unclear where the money will come from to foot the bill for the $350,000 program, Bailey said.
Grants have been sought to help fund the program.
However, the budding star said she is excited to use her talents to raise money for the school-based initiative.
“I hope even with a recession, a lot of people will come out,” Syesha said before the show.
Roberta Stacey, of Sarasota, stood outside waiting in line with her daughter and grandchildren to see Syesha.
“I figured everyone would enjoy a treat like this. We were rooting for her when she was on the show. We wanted her to win,” she said.
Syesha sang songs she performed on “American Idol” and reflected on her experiences.
Just before performing, “No One,” she said, “This song helped me through. No negative person is going to take this away from me.”
The crowd scattered along the bleachers and sitting in front of the stage in chairs stood for the song.
As Syesha wrapped up the concert, backed by local performers on stage, she told the crowd the next time she returns she would be performing using her own songs.
During the show, Syesha imparted words of encouragement.
“I just want to tell everyone, no matter what anyone says, you just have to block it out. Everyone has opinions. . . . At the end of the day, you are the only one looking in the mirror. You have to be happy with what you see,” she said.
Even an hour before the fund-raising concert began, lines formed outside.
The concert was Syesha’s first appearance in her former hometown since she was on “American Idol.” She was one of three finalists on the 2008 TV show, and she became an overnight sensation. She continues to develop singing and acting careers.
“Everyone has welcomed me back with open arms. It’s really good to be here,” she said at the center a couple hours before the show.
She said she is living in Los Angeles and working on her first studio album with Grammy-winning producers. The work has been exhausting, but rewarding, she said.
“I was reminded nothing is handed to you,” she said.