Some very helpful, curious and talented visitors have been making their upbeat presence known throughout Houston this past week as the Up With People tour has come to town bringing their volunteer and performance spirit with them.
Yes, the organization first founded in the '60s as a people-positive counter to any violent strains in the counter culture movement is still flourishing and still offering young adults the opportunity to tour the world. Unlike a musical group or band whose main focus on a tour is getting in, performing and then moving on to the next city, these Up With People people arrived in Houston ready to explore the city while offering their own gifts in return for our hospitality.
This international cast of a 100 young adults, representing 20 different countries — some as far away as Madagascar and Nepal — are living with 43 local host families. Throughout their stay, they’ll volunteer with community nonprofit organizations and schools and on Friday (April 21) their Houston visit will culminate with a big musical show at St. Pius X High School before embarking on the European leg of their 2017 tour.
This week-long Houston stop is also a bit of a homecoming for one member of the current cast with deep Up With People and Houston roots. Chameli Belk-Gupta, the granddaughter of Up With People founder, J. Blanton Belk, graduated from Lamar High School in Houston, and so her host family this week is her real family.
I had a chance to catch up with Chameli, who was on a short break from a week packed with volunteer service and rehearsals, and her mother, Jenny Belk-Gupta, who was born the same year that her father founded Up With People and toured as a cast member herself in the mid-80s.
When discussing the founding of the organization in the '60s and those first song writers who helped hone the Up With People inspirational message, including an Up With People theme song, Jenny Belk-Gupta admits that in cynical times those ideals might sound naive.
“Now it sounds a little bit simple and hokey, but the message is really great. Instead of down with your political party or down with your beliefs, up with everybody. Up with people.”
Even when she left performing and touring, married and began raising a family, Jenny Belk-Gupta remained a supporter of the organization, often hosted cast members and instilled those beliefs in her daughters.
“I’ve always loved Up With People,” explained Chameli, who says one of her first memories was dancing in the aisles at an Up With People concert her mother took her to see when she was four years old. “I’ve been raised with the values and raised to live as a global citizen, but I’m also very passionate about things that Up With People believes in. I decided that before going to college I wanted to take a year and do Up With People and get this new perspective.”
When I asked the Belk women how organization and touring experience has changed over the generations, both mother and daughter say at almost exactly the same time: “Our message hasn’t changed.”
“The core is still the same,” Jenny want on to explain, “but I think Up With People has kept up with the times very well and adapted the show to modern concerns.”
Chameli chimes in with examples of some of the current issues raised in the music of this latest show production including a song about global warming and one about Novel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, a song that Chameli says she still gets goosebumps every time she sings it.
Chameli also notes the organization has moved with the times when it comes to connecting with people around the world with a strong social media presence.
Yet Jenny Belk-Gupta sees many similarities between the issues that concern us in the 21st century and when her father founded the organization.
“I think it’s interesting it was 1965, and now 2017, and here we are again with racial tensions in this country and all over the world and sectarian strife between faiths,” pondered Jenny Belk-Gupta. “As far as we’ve come, we’re back to the basics again of needing to respect each other and find common ground because we have to or we’re going to implode.”
Still the Up With People message and show remains a very hopeful one, and Houston will even get its own space song of hope at the Friday night show, “Moon Rider.” The cast will sing a special rendition of the song about and inspired by Captain Eugene Cernan, Commander of Apollo 17.
Cernan was the last man to walk on the moon and later served on the UWP board for several decades. Fittingly, for both Houston and the show’s international cast, the song paints that image the astronaut saw from moon, of an Earth without borders, the place we all call home.
Up With People performs in Houston, Friday, April 21 at St. Pius X High School. For advanced tickets check the tour website.