Nine years ago, Kenda Smith, a former dancer, got a call from the American Legion in Independence. They asked her to help put on a creative and patriotic performance for Veterans Day.
At the time, Smith gathered 14 dancers from a local studio, making them the first members of the Grateful Americans Entertainment Group. Since then, the troupe has grown to encompass 63 dancers, singers and actors – ranging from ages six to 80.
They’ve traveled to veterans home facilities in Warrensburg and Camden, as well as to many community events. As part of this busy schedule, the group performed a compilation of wartime and nationalistic songs on Tuesday for Palmer Center residents.
As Smith tells it, she never says no to anything if it involves veterans, and she never charges for the performances.
“It’s totally out of my control,” Smith said of the group’s unexpected origins and expansion. “I just kind of try to herd everyone together.”
Janice Cheatum, a singer in the Grateful Americans Entertainment Group, has an idea about what drives the troupe’s success: its ability to engage audiences. To her, this trait is precisely what makes the performances stand out from any other display of patriotism.
“When we sing some of the songs or play some of the taps, people really get emotional,” Cheatum shared. “I think the veterans enjoy being recognized. … So many of them are in places where they don’t get recognized on a regular basis.”
Judy Brooks, another singer, affirmed this sentiment. One year after her veteran husband died, she decided to join the troupe as a way to honor him. In between rehearsals and shows, Brooks bonds with other women impacted by their husbands’ service – a comfort, as she says no one else knows what it’s like.
“My favorite part is the camaraderie of all our members, all paying tribute to veterans,” Brooks said. “That’s at the heart of all of it.”