By Tahliyah Binford
The local legend who sang lead for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group, The Impressions, will perform in concert next month to prevent homelessness for youth aging out of foster care.
“Me and my wife have taken people into our homes who have had no place to stay. It’s a ministry and passion of my heart,” said Willie Kitchens Jr., a husband and father of seven children including four who are adopted.
Kitchens will perform at 7 p.m. Aug. 7 at Bessie Smith Cultural Center to benefit Pathways Young Adult Program. Tickets are $50. Proceeds will be used to renovate a three-bedroom house and build a quadruplex on recently acquired property in Brainerd to house young adults aging out of foster care.
Nationwide an average of 64 youth a day age out of foster care and have no support at age 18.
About 20 percent of them become homeless, according to the Tennessee Alliance for Kids.William H. Ward, a member of Kitchen’s church and executive director of Pathways for Young Adults, has been providing housing and social services for aged out youth since 2007.
“When they turn 18 they are considered adults, but really they are not,” said Ward.Under his care youth receive housing and they are required to complete their GED or get vocational training. Ward also helps students apply for financial services like food stamps and he assigns them retired teachers and coaches as mentors.
Ward is housing 12 youth, but has a waiting list to help more.
There are about 8,000 children in the foster care system in Tennessee, but only 4,000 foster families willing to provide homes, according to the Tennessee Alliance for Kids.
About 75 percent of youth who age out of foster care will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and less than 3 percent will earn a degree in college or vocational school, according to the Alliance for Kids.
“This could be your child who needs somewhere to live, so come out and support,” said Kitchens.
The night will include dinner, dancing and listening to rhythm and blues and jazz. There will also be some gospel, said Kitchens.
Raising money to provide housing for youth in foster care is one of many ways Kitchens uses his musical talent to support people in need. He has also done benefit concerts for the Bethlehem Center and Hospice of Chattanooga.
Kitchens was born and raised in Chattanooga. He graduated from The Howard High School . He started music at a young age with his family. He enjoyed playing music at churches and venues. He said helping youth is his passion.
He became the Music and Performing Arts Director at the Chattanooga Bethlehem Center in 1995. He created a traveling youth choir for children ages 2 to 18.
Kitchens worked with the Bethlehem center first as a custodian. Then former executive director Lurone “Coach” Jennings told board members of the Bethlehem Center how talented Kitchens was as a singer and musician. Jennings fired Kitchens as a custodian and immediately hired him as music director.
In December 1999 Kitchens joined the Impressions and later in 2001 toured with Eric Clapton.
In 2013 Kitchens became pastor of Bethlehem Wiley United Methodist Church where he preaches and leads worship on Sundays at 11:30 a.m.
Kitchens said his music isn’t a quest for fame, but an expression of the love and passion inside him. He has a heart for youth and his music is one tool he can use to help them.“ I do music from a life experience,” he said. “And I hope it resonates from me and reaches someone else.”