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Sunshine of Their Lives : Visit by Stevie Wonder Does Wonders for Young Students

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The entire student body of Martin Luther King Elementary School,gathered in a gravel-covered playground, suddenly grew quiet and, for several rare minutes, stood enraptured, as recording star Stevie Wonder sang to them.

Using his musical gift, Wonder sang “I Just Called to Say I Love You” a cappella, adding an occasional “boom, boom boom,” for good measure, making the audience giggle.

The 40-year-old Wonder spoke and sang to children at three San Diego elementary schools Friday, in support of the San Diego city schools’ art education program, “Young at Art.”

He is also scheduled to perform at a benefit concert Saturday night, which organizers hope will raise $50,000 for the program.

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“Young at Art” is a nonprofit program that brings professional artists into the classroom to teach art on a temporary contract basis. The program began three years ago with a $2.75-million grant from the Maxwell H. Gluck Foundation, but the money is running out, and the program is in danger of losing it’s artists, said program director Kay Wagner.

Dale Baker, an artist participating in the program, wrote a song called “You Dream,” along with her students. The song was about how one should have dreams, and that dreams can come true. Baker, whose longtime dream was to meet Wonder, presented it to him, explaining what the “Young at Art” program was about and inviting him to participate.

“He thought it was beautiful,” she said. “He knew that he was a source that could keep that idea alive.”

Wonder agreed to help.

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He arrived at the playground in a Range Rover about 2 p.m., accompanied by a limousine and several other cars.

“You are the ones that will make a difference,” he told the students at King elementary, after a student recited King’s “I have a dream” speech from memory. He encouraged them to “change the world to the way it is supposed to be.”

“My prayer is for all of your safety, in this time of war,” he added. “My prayer is for all the young children around the world, those children in the Middle East, the children in America. I hope that we will soon see a time when people can form the real army we need in the world, and that is the army for peace and unity.”

The blind pop star had his first hit single, “Fingertips, Part II” at the age of 13. He began a highly successful career of making chart-busting albums and established himself as one of the most gifted and acclaimed figures of modern pop. Three consecutive Wonder albums won best-album Grammys in the mid ‘70s.

Some of his most popular songs include, “You are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Superstitious,” “Living for the City,” and “My Cherie Amour.”

Wagner, who rode with Wonder’s entourage from school to school, said Wonder, who was not available for comment, was visiting schools to send a personal message of support for the arts program, and to encourage students to get involved with the arts.

“He said that there weren’t enough opportunities for children to express themselves through art in schools,” she said, “and that all kids deserve a chance to experience the arts and make them a part of their lives . . . like he did when he went through elementary school. That’s what he told them.”

King elementary is 69% Latino, 27% black and 4% white, Principal Anita Calhoun said.

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Although many children could not say they knew Wonder’s music well, they stood in groups singing the song he sang long after he had stepped away from the microphone.

Sixth-grader Tishon Bermudez said she listens to his music and felt the main message he delivered during the visit was that “he loves us all.”

Tonight’s fund-raising dinner at which Wonder will appear is a black-tie event at the Sheraton Harbor Island Hotel sponsored by HomeFed Bank as part of its community relations program, bank spokeswoman Kaye Rowan said.

The program will start with an exhibit of art done by some of the 110,000 students who have participated in the program as well as works done by some of the professional artists who taught them.

Tickets to the event, priced at $100 and $200, are still available.


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