Talented teens from across the county left it all on the stage Saturday during the fourth annual Washington’s Got Talent.
The competition benefits Washington Hospital Teen Outreach, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary and offers a variety of programs including one-on-one mentoring for young parents as well as peer-led drug and alcohol prevention education.
About 700 people came out to cheer on 14 middle- and high-school-aged performers as they sang, danced, strummed and drummed their hearts out in the Trinity High School auditorium. Last year, the contest raised more than $20,000 for the organization.
“It’s a perfect fundraiser for us because we’re all about empowering kids,” said Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski, the organization’s director.
According to Podgurski, the organization has taught sex education to an estimated 230,000 students, trained more than 10,000 peer educators and mentored almost 6,000 young parents since 1988. Her daughter, Amy Podgurski-Gough, who also serves as a mentor, created the competition, which is in the vein of popular television shows like “America’s Got Talent” – as evidenced by the name – and “American Idol.”
Podgurski-Gough explained that four open auditions were hosted at locations around the county. Additionally, several private auditions were held at Washington, Canon-McMillan, Fort Cherry, Trinity and Chartiers-Houston school districts, all participants in the Students Helping Others Committee, which presented the show along with the Washington Hospital Foundation.
On hand to judge the event were state Rep. Brandon Neuman, Four Townsmen singer John Marcischak, dance and tumbling instructor Katrina Thomas and a local celebrity who knows a thing or two about singing competitions – former American Idol semi-finalist Adam Brock. A teen outreach alumnus involved in peer education, Brock was the master of ceremonies at the first competition, a role tackled by Steve Polansky this year.
On the line were $1,000 in cash and a prize package that included a photo shoot, recording time and the chance to play at an upcoming Washington Women’s Network event and the Washington County Fair. Two other $500 prizes were also up for grabs.
Pounding the skins on his way to the top prize was Fort Cherry junior Justin Walker, a drummer who may look like he belongs in the heavy metal band Mötley Crüe, but who says he lives a drug-free lifestyle. A member of the Pittsburgh-area rock band Zero Fame, Walker performed an original piece and said winning the event was “humbling.”
Second place went to Canon-Mac senior Carolyn Hock, a singer and guitarist, who was inspired to perform “Hallelujah” by Lee Dewyze by her best friend. She overcame her nervousness and kept her cool while technical difficulties were ironed out with her guitar.
Wash High sophomore Luke Paskert, who also sang and played guitar, performed the song “Collide” by Howie Day and was honored as the fan favorite.
A number of dancers, including Trinity senior Weylin Gomez and McGuffey junior Ashley King, made great use of the stage as they carried out bold, gymnast-like maneuvers.
Podgurski-Gough said all of the contestants put their hearts on the sleeves and came into the competition with an open attitude.
The night also featured a spaghetti dinner, prize raffle and cupcake contest – the latter of which was won by Wash High student Riley Bennardini. The two top acts from last year also performed, and five student MCs helped keep the show rolling.
“I get blown away by how many people walk through the door and enjoy the show,” Podgurski-Gough said. “It all just clicks in the end.”
More than a dozen of the program’s alumni also took the stage, some of whom shared touching, personal experiences about how the outreach programs have helped shape their lives.
“I’m not usually speechless, but it took my breath away,” Podgurski said.
For more information on Washington Hospital Teen Outreach, please visit www.healthyteens.com.