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LETTER FROM THE EDITOR: Manatee’s Idol brings spirit, energy and a message for us all

“Manatee County, make some noise!”

Well, the emcee didn’t have to beg the more than 1,500 fans gathered at the Manatee Convention Center. As anticipation built, they offered up a roar worthy of any concert hall.

Their Manatee Idol, Syesha Mercado, was about to take the stage. And Syesha turned her first concert into a homecoming.

“Bring up the lights so I can see everybody,” she implored. “I’m so happy to be back — I know you guys love me.”

That was no exaggeration, either. Crowded around the stage Thursday night were family — including Mom, Dad, sisters and godmother — friends and, of course, die-hard fans. Cameras flashed incessantly. Chants of “Syesha! Syesha! Syesha!” did the wave around the stands.

Yet Syesha — just nine months removed from almost winning the “American Idol” contest — didn’t take the stage to talk about herself. She started by having a conversation with us about Amer-I-Can.

Amer-I-Can, a life-skills program that has already helped steer dozens of at-risk kids in our community away from drugs and gangs, may get axed in all the budget cuts. Syesha learned about the program’s potential demise from her sister, Xtavia Bailey, the Amer-I-Can facilitator at Sugg Middle School.

What better way to raise money than to put on a show for your sister?

As soon as Syesha said her sister’s name, another cheer went out from the crowd — a young, adrenaline-filled cheer of adoration. Not all those 1,500 fans were there just to see Syesha. This was definitely an Xtavia fan club, an entire section filled with her students and friends.

If Amer-I-Can survives this round, Xtavia and her sister will be a key reason. Their spirit and belief in all things possible are boundless. Xtavia’s eyes sparkled as she told me how her idea to help had quickly evolved into this concert.

With the Manatee Education Foundation’s full support and hard work, they had pulled it off.

The crowd came early and stayed through both sets — eight songs, as Syesha promised. She didn’t disappoint, starting with the pre-concert reception where she posed for photographs and signed autographs for everyone standing in line for more than an hour.

You couldn’t have asked for a more diverse fan base, either, and no one was embarrassed to show their starstruck side.

Even our elected officials were proud to be groupies — including county Commissioner Carol Whitmore, who held onto her autographed poster like a trophy, bragging that it would have an honored spot on her “Rock Wall” of stars.

During a concert break, a couple of Syesha T-shirts were offered to the crowd. You’d have thought they were tickets to tonight’s Oscars. The two winners exemplified the crowd’s range: the youngest and the oldest. A 2-year-old cutie in her dad’s arms captured the first prize; a proud 83-year-old Juanita Thomas won the elder rights.

Juanita was camped out in the bleachers with her sister, Hazel.

Even when the concert was over and the crowd was thinning, they sat there absorbing everything. I couldn’t resist asking what had brought them here.

“I just love her — I watch ‘American Idol’ all the time and feel like I know her,” Juanita said. “And hey, Syesha’s one of us — here in Bradenton!”

Hazel, visiting from Illinois, had a different perspective, starting with the night’s opening rap band. “This is a new experience for me,” she said with a grin. “I’ve been a church choir director for 52 years.”

This might have been a bit removed from the sanctuary, but the messages and offerings were just as blessed.

Thousands of dollars were raised for Amer-I-Can, says Mary Glass, Manatee Education Foundation’s director and full-time concert producer for the past two months.

“Watch her,” Mary advised as she stood near the stage. “Syesha’s going to make it big.”

In the eyes of this crowd, Syesha already has.

And she promised to be back, saying, “Next time I come, I’ll be singing my own tunes.”

Believe it.

Joan Krauter, executive editor, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 2000.