{mosimage}On a recent Saturday morning the auditorium of a Cumberland County school rang with the laughter of children. That was soon accompanied by the sound of music, interspersed with the occasional shriek of laughter when someone missed their mark or forgot the words to the song.
    Most of the joyous sounds were caused by the five girls who make up Voices of the Heart, but they were joined in their hilarity by the extensive cast of the 10th Annual Heart of Christmas Show. The show, scheduled at the Crown Theatre Nov. 29-30, has become firmly entrenched in the holiday traditions of the community.
    The show, a Branson-styled musical journey that takes its viewers directly to the heart of Christmas, features the vivacious and talented members of Voices of the Heart. The singing group, which was the impetus for the show, has been together in one form or another for the past 10 years. At its center is local musician and voice teacher Laura Stevens. Stevens, who can be just as vivacious as the girls she mentors, started the group with her voice students. After winning a gospel music contest, Stevens started looking for ways for the group to perform, but also benefit the community. That’s when the idea for the Heart of Christmas Show took root.
    The show, which can be compared to a show you might see in Branson, Mo., has all the props. There’s the scenery, there’s the dancers, there’s quick costume changes and a chorus of singing Elvises. All of those elements are put together to tell the story of Christmas starting with the traditional celebrations like Rudolph and Frosty, and then leading to a quiet manger in Bethlehem.
    And while the girls make it look easy on stage, the road getting to the stage is far from easy. In the months and weeks leading up to the show, the girls totally immerse themselves in music. Of course, that’s not so difficult, as they spend the whole year traveling across the state performing concerts at churches. The girls will be the first to tell you that they love to perform, but more importantly, they love to share their love of God with the people they perform for.
    You only have to have one conversation with the girls to understand where they are coming from. Take 14-year-old Mandy Hawley for example. Hawley has been a full-fledged member of the group for three years, but she performed in the show before then. Hawley, a student at Jack Britt High School, has been performing since she was a small child. Hawley, whose usual show tradition is to get sick or hurt prior to the performance, has managed to stay in good health to this point, but even in years past she hasn’t let her various illnesses slow her down.
“I really just enjoy singing and this is a way for me to share my love of the Lord with everyone,” she said. “It’s very important that people know about God’s love, and someone has to tell them.”
    And, the show has also given her sisters. “These people are the best people,” she explained. “We have grown to be best friends, and all the time we spend together is just a lot of fun.”
    Her thoughts were echoed by all the members of the group. For 15-year-old Katie Strickland, a sophomore at Pine Forest, the eight years she has spent in Voices of the Heart have enriched her life as much, as the group has enriched the lives of the community. “They are just like my sisters,” said Strickland, “but the fact that we can have fun and still share with those in need is really important.”
    Strickland is referencing the funds raised by the group during the annual show. Each year the proceeds from the show go to various charitable organizations in the community. The show itself is designed as an outreach to share God’s love through music, but also to share his love in a very real and tangible way. Since its inception, the show has returned more than $200,000 to community nonprofits.
    This year, that money is even more important to Strickland. A friend of her’s is at Cape Fear Valley. He’s staying in the wing sponsored by the Friends of Children, one group that benefits annually from show. “I can actually see where the money we raise is making a difference,” she said.
    For her sister, Karmen, this year is bittersweet. Karmen has been performing with the group for the past nine years. She will leave the group when she starts college, but knows that the time she has spent has done a lot of good in the community. Karmen noted that while performing was a rush and something she has enjoyed, what is more satisfying is seeing the good the group can and continues to do in the community. “To know that we’ve impacted the lives of children in need is really important,” she said. “It lets us know that even at a young age you can make a difference, you can change someone’s life.”
    Rachel Crenshaw, also 14, has been with the group for seven years; like the others she enjoys helping the community, but she also loves the spectacle of the performance. “There’s a lot of singing and dancing,” she said. “We love to perform. I would like to continue working on my music, and maybe one day teach kids just like Ms. Laura.”
    Hannah Godbold, 13, is the newest member of the group. She’s still finding her way, but has found herself welcomed with open arms. “I danced in last year’s show and the girls were just so nice,” she said. “They made me feel like a part of the family.”
    And they hope you’ll feel like part of the family and join them on Thanksgiving weekend for the 10th Anniversary of the Heart of Christmas show. The show is scheduled to be at the Crown Nov. 29-30 at 7 and 3 p.m., respectively. Tickets are $12 in advance for adults; $8 for children under 12; and $18 at the door. Group rates are available.
    Tickets may be purchased at the Crown Center Box Office and all Ticketmaster outlets. Advance adult tickets are also available at Hawley’s Bicycle World on Raeford Road.
    For more information, visit the group’s Web site at www.heartofchristmas show.com.
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