They were on fire: Portland students light up Mills inauguration

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PORTLAND — Feeling not only welcomed, but valued, was the fundamental message three city students took away from last week’s inauguration of Gov. Janet Mills.

The students are all recent immigrants and all three said they’ll never forget how Mills made them feel – personally, and with her overall focus on embracing diversity and inclusivity.

Alain Igiraneza, a sophomore at Casco Bay High School, sang the national anthem, and Reiche Elementary School fifth-graders Shy Paca and Natalia Mbadu performed “Girl on Fire” by Alicia Keys. A video of their performance, with Mills dancing joyfully in the background, soon went viral on social media.

“It was fitting that Alain, Shy and Natalia were chosen to inspire and motivate all of Maine on this momentous occasion,” Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana said this week.”I am always inspired and motivated by (our) talented students. The Portland Public Schools is very proud of all (of them).”

Like many, Botana said he was “brought to tears by the rendition of ‘Girl on Fire.'” And Derek Pierce, principal at Casco Bay High, called Igiraneza’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” “both gorgeous and provocative.”

Although Igiraneza, Paca and Mbadu are all students in Portland schools, they were also representing the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine at the Jan. 2 event at the Augusta Civic Center.

All three said it was the biggest crowd they’d ever sung for and admitted to being quite nervous as they stepped onstage.

Igiraneza, 16, has a little more experience than the younger students, because he has sung the national anthem at sporting events and other special occasions around the city. He said there are often large crowds at Maine Red Claws basketball games, for instance, but none as large as the one at the Augusta Civic Center last week.

“I was really excited, but also really nervous at the same time,” Igiraneza said. “… But once I started singing I started to feel more confident and comfortable. I really loved the whole ceremony. The governor really welcomes people like me and it was important to feel that.”

He’s not yet sure what he wants to do for a career, but Igiraneza hopes to eventually attend Bowdoin College in Brunswick.

Paca, 11, and Mbadu, 10, began singing together at the Boys & Girls Clubs and both said what they like most about singing is that it makes them happy. “When I’m sad, I can sing my heart out” and feel better, Mbadu said.

Mills was touring the clubhouse last summer when she heard the girls singing together and remembered them when it was time to plan her inauguration ceremony.

Paca said she and Mbadu had already performed “Girl on Fire” publicly a couple times, but they also thought it would be “a good song because it would match with (Mills) being the first woman” governor of Maine.

Paca said she and Mbadu also just “really like” the song. And, even though both girls were exceedingly nervous, Paca said she told Mbadu “let’s do this like we’re never turning back.”

The girls said by the time they hit the first chorus, their performance had become a sort of sing-along with people standing up and cheering them on. Paca said she was thrilled by the prolonged standing ovation they received.

“I really liked it,” she said with a big grin.

Both girls said they hope to continue singing together. Mbadu said she has no particular favorite artist or genre when it comes to music, but Paca said she likes “encouraging songs.”

In addition to singing, Mbadu also plays the piano. She said she got her love of music from her mother, who likes to dance. Paca said her mother also sings and her father plays the drums.

Paca said everyone should just follow their dreams and “whatever opportunity comes your way, you should take.” And Mbadu said it’s important to “always stick to what you believe in.”

Karen MacDonald, chief operating officer of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine, said Igiraneza, Paca and Mbadu were among a group of 15 kids from clubhouses across Maine who were invited to attend Mills’ inauguration.

MacDonald said music is an important part of what the Boys & Girls Clubs offer because it “helps build self-confidence and self-esteem, (along with) academic and social skills.” In addition, she said, “music can be a magnet to attract children and teens into our positive, safe clubhouses.”

Along with singing groups, MacDonald said the Boys & Girls Clubs have provided instruction in the ukulele, hand drumming, guitar and more, although specific offerings vary at each clubhouse.

About four years ago “we hired a part-time music instructor at our Portland clubhouse only and the impact has been tremendous,” she said.

“We are so proud of Shy and Natalia and grateful that they shared their talent to help represent Boys & Girls Clubs across Maine at this important civic event,” she said, adding it’s “been inspiring to see them become friends and learn music together.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 780-9097

or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Natalia Mbadu, left, and Shy Paca, at Reiche Elementary School in Portland on Jan. 4.

Gov. Janet Mills gives Natalia Mbadu, 10, and Shy Paca, 11, students at Reiche Elementary School in Portland, a big hug after their rendition of “Girl on Fire” brought the inauguration crowd to its feet Jan. 2 at the Augusta Civic Center.

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