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Detroit Youth Choir welcomed home with $1M endowment

Detroit — In the end, they were winners after all.

The Detroit Youth Choir ended its storied run on “America's Got Talent” in second place but returned home Friday celebrated as champions and the city's best ambassadors.

A homecoming honoring the 52-member group, whose performances amazed judges on the NBC competition and earned national recognition, drew hundreds to Campus Martius Park downtown, where the choir was surprised with a $1 million endowment gift by the Skillman and Kresge foundations and other Detroit philanthropies.

"We love the love that (America) gave to you, but ain't no love like a Detroit love," said Tonya Allen, CEO and president of the Skillman Foundation. "... What you’ve given to us is so precious. It is a reminder for all of us to take care of our children, to invest in our children and to do the best for our children. You got gifts and we have one for you."

Choir Director Anthony White was almost speechless.

“It means everything," White told The Detroit News. "It means a new facility, new programming, a new vision, really. A new outlook on our organization and I’m so honored that Kresge, Skillman, every donor that helped, Kellogg — I just love them and we appreciate everything."

The quickly launched fund, which the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan will manage, is slated to support the choir in perpetuity, officials said.

The members, who are part of the nonprofit Detroit Youth Concert Choir & Performing Arts Company targeting young people ages 8 to 18, also cemented their newfound celebrity status with another milestone: a key to the city.

Mayor Mike Duggan, who last handed the city's highest honor to local icons Aretha Franklin and Big Sean, noted the Spirit of Detroit and other spots around town have been draped in purple to show gratitude.

"We are so proud of you," he told the group. "Under the brightest of lights, with the eyes of the world on you, you showed everyone the talent, the intelligence, the dedication of the youth of Detroit."

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Members of the choir and support staff celebrate after an announcement is made on stage that a $1 million endowment is gifted to the choir by the Skillman and Kresge foundations and other Detroit philanthropies as the city of Detroit, the Downtown Detroit Partnership and WDIV host a homecoming celebration for the Detroit Youth Choir's singers, director Anthony White and the rest of the choir's team at Campus Martius, Friday, September 20, 2019. The group finished in 2nd place on the America's Got Talent show. (Todd McInturf, The Detroit News)2019.

To many who crowded Campus Martius in summer-like warmth to toast the youths with chants of "DYC," their meteoric rise represented much more.

"You have blessed us and you blessed the city," said Eric Larson, CEO of the Downtown Detroit Partnership, which presented the homecoming along with the city and WDIV-TV, Ch. 4. "... You're an inspiration to all of us." 

The celebration capped a whirlwind few months for the choir, which first stepped into the national spotlight in June. Their rendition of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Can’t Hold Us” impressed "AGT" host and Flint native Terry Crews enough to give them the coveted golden buzzer that secured their spot in the quarterfinals.

They advanced with other widely praised performances of songs by Carrie Underwood/Ludacris and Panic! At The Disco.

The choir reached the finals and competed against nine other acts for $1 million and a chance to headline at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino. 

Results of the nationwide audience vote during the season finale Wednesday placed them as runner-ups to Kodi Lee, a 23-year-old singer and musician from California who is blind and has autism.

A choir has never won in 14 seasons of "America's Got Talent."

Reaching a level few can imagine amazed Gwendolyn Jackson, 13, an aspiring singer who, like her fellow choir members, spent months preparing.

"I really enjoyed my journey with DYC. They just felt like family this whole trip," the teen told the audience while standing near Channel 4 anchor Kimberly Gill. "I am really thankful that I got to stand on the 'America’s Got Talent' stage with them and that I ... got a chance to do this because I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time."

The group inspired locals such as Philena Holdridge of Pontiac, who eagerly followed their advance and lingered after the homecoming to congratulate members.

"I was just so impressed with the choreography and their voices and the joy they exuded. It was just marvelous," she said. "They’re an inspiration … You don’t always know what kids can do until you put them out there and let them try."

Standing near a large, diverse crowd that applauded the choir's return and surprise endowment, Brandon Covert of Dearborn Heights also saw a success story.

"I love how it brought Detroit together," the 21-year-old said.

There are still chances to rally around the choir. 

The group is slated to be the opening act when the 93rd America's Thanksgiving Day Parade hits Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit on Nov. 28. The choir also is scheduled to perform on the main stage during the Parade Company’s largest fundraiser, the 30th Annual Hob Nobble Gobble, at Ford Field.

And even though the group didn't finish first in the TV competition, members will get to perform in Las Vegas Nov. 7-10 with the winner, Lee, and other "America's Got Talent" acts: Ryan Niemiller, V.Unbeatable Dance Crew and Tyler Butler-Figueroa.

"What’s next? More shows, better shows. More travelin,’" White said. "More spreadin’ the word about Detroit."