ST. PETERSBURG — Eight-year-old Jeloni Parks has already experienced some of the highs and lows of life that most adults never will. With his diminutive stature, he lights up any room he’s in.
Jeloni secured the lead in “The Family Blessing,” a theatrical explosion of dance, music and color playing at the Mahaffey Theater later this month. He triumphs as the main character, Michael, who travels to exotic locales in a quest for a happy home.
Unfortunately, Jeloni can empathize with the plight of his stage character and his quest for a happy home because he himself is homeless. He and his mother live in various motels or whatever accommodations she can make for that day.
Benita Flowers gave birth to Jeloni at the young age of 18. She has been met with many obstacles in the struggled to provide a permanent home for them. They have shuffled between bleak motel rooms and different relatives, but Jeloni keeps his head in the air and a song in his heart.
“He always has a smile on his face,” stated Flowers. “He told me he doesn’t know how to frown.”
Dr. Cheryl Copeland, an educator at Fairmount Park Elementary, discovered Jeloni’s talents one day. They came to light when she met him as a kindergartener in her music class, which introduces students to the basic theater technique and the different genres of music.
“So much poise, character and rhythm at five years old,” Copeland said. “Although he demonstrates those attributes to the other children, he’s very humble and not boastful.”
At their first meeting, Jeloni challenged Copeland to a dance-off and proceeded to steal her heart. She personally took him to his first audition for “The Family Blessing” and he stole creator and producer Jai Hinson’s heart as well.
The admiration is mutual in this student/teacher relationship. “She has made me happy because she put me in dancing and I got to do a lot of things I wouldn’t have gotten to do,” Jeloni said.
His mother feels that the music class has helped Jeloni to “blossom” into a well-rounded, happy child and has helped him not be nervous and scared.
“He used to not talk much but this program has made him [feel] more free. His attitude has changed and he is more responsible about his homework,” said Flowers.
Though mature in many ways, this eight-year-old virtuoso is still a child. When asked to describe how he felt about his homeless situation, a lone tear rolled silently down his cheek. That tear spoke volumes of the impact homelessness has on families, more than any words could have expressed.
The smile quickly returned with the hope of a bright future. “I like to get acting parts,” he exclaimed. “The singing makes me feel good.”
He spoke fondly of practicing for the musical production coming to the Mahaffey Theater Dec. 19 and 20. “I get to do all kinds of moves and steps,” Jeloni stated. “It makes me feel happy and stops my day from being bad.”
Jeloni is a member of Dundu Dole African Urban Ballet and a student at Competitive Edge Dance Academy.
For tickets to see Jeloni perform in “The Family Blessing,” contact the Mahaffey Theater at (727) 893-7832 or call (813) 451-4410.