Seventeen-year-old Sarah Bernstein of Salisbury swept the accolades at Friday's opening reception that greeted Hollywood stars at the Courtyard Marriott in Ocean City. She has a YouTube video online of original music, and the buzz is that her body of works is in the Top 10.
"I am honored to be able to sing before such influential people," said Bernstein, an 11th grade student at the Salisbury School. Her parents, Kevin and Petra Bernstein, accompanied their daughter. Her grandfather, Eastern Shore businessman Richard "Dick" Bernstein, also attended.
"This is my first big event in this area. People said I'm going places," she said.
Celebrity guests for the weekend event are actors S. Epatha Merkerson, a veteran of the hit NBC police and courtroom drama, "Law and Order;" Tippi Hedren, remembered for her award-winning performance in Alfred Hitchcock's classic movie thriller, "The Birds;" broadcast legend Larry King of CNN's "Larry King Live" talk show; and the husband-and-wife singing duo, Billy Davis and Marilyn McCoo, of the famed musical group, The 5th Dimension.
Interim UMES President Mortimer H. Neufville reminded the audience of the weekend's primary purpose: to raise dollars that help educate UMES students.
"With the support of donors like you, we are raising funds to provide need-based scholarships to deserving UMES students," Neufville said in an official Gala statement. "The event will help enhance the educational experience of many students and we are most grateful to you for helping to make dreams come true."
The gala has awarded 60 need-based scholarships through the Gala Endowment Fund since the event launched 13 years ago, each ranging between $500 and $4,000, said Veronique Diriker, event coordinator and director of development at UMES. Actress Melanie Griffith, an invited celebrity unable to attend, lent support along with producers of her current film through a $20,000 gift to the endowment fund.
"We appreciate everyone's generous support, especially in these financial times when students need even more help to fund their education," Diriker said. "The donation by Melanie Griffith and the producers will help grow the endowment as well. The UMES Gala is all about the students."
Lukman Anidu, a 2011 UMES graduate, is among the grateful recipients of a Gala scholarship. The native of Nigeria who lives in Princess Anne would have quit college in his sophomore year had it not been for the financial award.
"I lost my dad and my sister in a car accident, and my dad was responsible for my school fees," Anidu said last week. "I was getting ready to pack my bags and go home. People at the university saw (how) hard-working I was, and I was able to get a scholarship."
Sarah Bernstein hopes gala celebrities and guests like her talent -- and drop her name in the right circles. At the reception, she belted out favorites recorded by legendary songstresses Etta James, the blues, soul and jazz vocalist who died in January; and country singer Patsy Cline, who died in 1963 at age 30 in a plane crash.
"I think it's wonderful that people support the same dream and see my potential," Bernstein said.
Anidu intends to pay it forward.
"Without the scholarship, education would have been a dream for me," said the former engineering student who's planning for graduate school. "Gala tickets are expensive, and I am not able to attend. But one day, when I become somebody, I'll be able to give back the money raised for me and make a contribution to somebody else's life."
This article and photograph originally appeared in The (Salisbury, MD) Daily Times newspaper, a corporate sponsor of the 2012 UMES celebrity Gala, and is reproduced with permission.