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Long Creek fifth-grader is voice for A Child’s Place

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/02/15/54/lpZtE.Em.138.jpeg|316
    JOHN D. SIMMONS - jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com
    Kenneth Lee Gray III, a fifth-grader at Long Creek Elementary, is the spokesman for A Child’s Place. He recently won a $10,000 grant from Wells Fargo for the organization in a speech contest. “I busted out and started dancing onstage” when it was announced, he said.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/02/15/54/8fizl.Em.138.jpeg|236
    - Photo courtesy of Tracy Alexander
    Kenneth Gray III, and his mom, Tracy Alexander, hold up the $10,000 check from Wells Fargo that Kenneth won for A Child’s Place following his speech abuot the organization.

Kenneth Gray III has always enjoyed acting. You’ll see the fifth-grader soon in the Long Creek Elementary production of “Cinderella.”

And in the past couple of years, Kenneth, 11, has put those skills to use by becoming the face of A Child’s Place, a local charity that helps keep homeless children healthy and successful in the classroom.

Just this fall, Kenneth won $10,000 for the charity by winning the Flash Philanthropy Mixer hosted by Wells Fargo. Representatives from a dozen local nonprofits had 60 seconds each to tell the audience gathered there why their organization should receive the grant. Audience members voted via text to name the winner.

Kenneth said he was thrilled he was able to get the grant for A Child’s Place. “I busted out and started dancing onstage” when it was announced, he said.

The money will fund the charity’s social work teams that work in elementary schools, said Annabelle Suddreth, A Child’s Place’s executive director.

Kenneth got involved last year when his first-grade theater teacher, Kelly Cates, asked him to represent A Child’s Place for a public service announcement video. Cates had been a volunteer there for several years and is now a student advocate for the organization.

She wanted to find children to represent A Child’s Place on behalf of homeless children instead of adults. “I wanted someone who would convey warmth and sensitivity,” Cates said. “I was really looking for someone who was genuine and honest, and Kenneth just always possessed that.”

Kenneth also addressed about 500 adults at the Charlotte Convention Center in January for the American Bus Association, which was a donor to the charity.

“He’s just so brave,” Cates said. “I told him, ‘Hey, I need you to go represent our kids, represent A Child’s Place students, in front of 500 adults. Go!’ and he said, ‘OK, Miss Kelly, I got it!’”

Working with A Child’s Place has had extra meaning for Kenneth and his mom, Tracy Alexander.

She said her family was homeless for a year when Kenneth was 2 or 3. “It was close to my heart because I know we had been through that,” Alexander said.

She said she worked two jobs and didn’t tell many people about their situation. “People don’t realize there’s a lot of homeless children out there.”

There are more than 1.6 million homeless children in the United States, and more than 4,700 in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system, Suddreth said.

“That is an understated number because it doesn’t count children too young to be in school or kids who are really good at hiding their most-guarded secret,” she said.

Because the charity is committed to protecting the privacy of clients, it uses children like Kenneth for public appearances, rather than the families they serve. She said the organization has turned down projects with “60 Minutes” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” because of the refusal to show the faces of homeless children they help.

Having a child spread the agency’s message has been powerful, Suddreth said.

In effect, Kenneth “is becoming the face of A Child’s Place, which is wonderful for us because hearing about homeless children is a compelling story that my face is never going to depict,” she said.

Kenneth said he has loved being able to help local children in need. “I think it’s good because I’m helping a lot of kids who deserve to go to elementary school,” he said. “I like that I get to do something for somebody.”

Kenneth said he doesn’t have many memories of being homeless, and that learning about homelessness has made him grateful for what he has.

He said it’s sad that so many children don’t have a home or have to share a bedroom with several people. “They don’t have electronics like us – iPads or tablets like us – and they don’t have that much food like us.”

His principal at Long Creek Elementary, Felisa Simpson, said Kenneth is a focused and determined student.

“He’s come a long way with his goals, and I’m proud of him,” she said. “He works really hard.”

Kenneth said he wants to pursue acting, but also wants to go to college to become a lawyer.

And he’ll continue volunteering with A Child’s Place.

“We will never be able to thank him enough for what he’s done,” Suddreth said, “and how he’s helping 4,700 kids have a voice.”

Ruebens: 704-358-5294; Twitter: @lruebens
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