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Cover Story - Posted August 29, 2009 9:34 a.m.
photo by Shannon Richardson

The Singer

When DonTreka Matthews was a little girl, her grandmother would call her aunts and uncles over to the house to watch her perform Whitney Houston songs. They’d pay her a dollar and cheer her on, and it was then that DonTreka knew she would pursue a career in music.

Fast forward to today, and you’ll discover that the little girl whose stage used to be the living room floor could very well be on the verge of something much bigger. In fact, after winning Amarillo Idol in 2007, the then-17-year-old won an advance pass to audition for American Idol in Miami, Florida. While the young singer’s AI experience ended when judges picked Syesha Mercado over her to participate in the seventh season, DonTreka wasn’t entirely deterred.

“I didn’t watch the last two seasons,” laughs DonTreka in the Amarillo Opera conference room. “I was a little bitter, I admit. But if it’s meant to be, it’ll roll around again.”

DonTreka was first discovered when she won the Miss Juneteenth pageant in 2006. She was 15 years old when pageant judge Melanie Peckenpaugh, then with the Amarillo Opera, gave Founder and former Director Mila Gibson a call.

“When I met her, I knew DonTreka was the kind of person we wanted as a role model for others. Not only did she have tremendous talent, but she has the ability to rise above circumstances,” says Mila. “She has a kind heart and can reach out to others. She’s a real entertainer. She connects with people.”

What Mila says of DonTreka is true. Her voice isn’t the only captivating thing about the 19-year-old Langston University sophomore. She’s beautiful, bright and hopeful that she will be able to use her love of music to impact others. She currently studies music therapy at the only historically black college in Oklahoma.

“I didn’t know what to do when I went to school but I knew it needed to be something with music,” she says. “I like to work with people with special needs, like those with Alzheimer’s. Music has been proven to bring back memories.”

Prior to her involvement with the Amarillo Opera, DonTreka only sang at church or family reunions. After meeting Mila, she joined the ARTS: An Alternative team, an outreach program where youth mentors bring the visual arts, music, drama and dance to local lower income communities. The nationally-recognized program gave DonTreka an opportunity to teach other talented young people, as well as give her an outlet for her own self expression.

“Whether it’s an art class or singing in the opera, they can find an outlet for their energy, to express their feelings,” says Mila. “Everyone wants to belong, and the Arts give you an opportunity to come in contact with some of the most beautiful talent in the world. It gives you a broader view of life.”

DonTreka grew up in Amarillo and has already seen that while opportunity exists in her hometown, there is still another world for her to discover. She went to Atlanta through the Federal TRIO Program over spring break and is already daydreaming about living there.

Of course, since her entire family lives in the Panhandle, it may be hard to leave.

“My mom’s and family’s support keeps me going. I have two brothers and two sisters. I grew up in a single-parent home, but my mom’s made it work,” she says. “My mom is everything to me. She’s a counselor, she’s my best friend. She can do anything.”

Also part of her support system are her grandparents, Marva and Don Matthews, who helped put her through two years at Ascension Academy. She recently lost her paternal grandmother, Margie McQueen, to lung cancer. DonTreka maintains that her grandmother’s death, to date, was the worst time in her life. Naturally, music pulled her through.

“I lived with her for a while and she had always been there for me,” she recalls quietly. “I sang ‘Alabaster Box’ in her ear when she died, laying there in her bed. At her funeral, I sang ‘I Can Only Imagine.’ I can’t sing it now without getting choked up.”

Her family notwithstanding, DonTreka dreams of a life spent in music, whether that means on stage, through volunteer work, or in a therapy setting.

“I just want to impact people. It’s not about fame or the cameras or the bling. I could do this the rest of my life – sing at gigs and stuff. It’s not about being famous,” says DonTreka. “I mean, it would be nice, but if it doesn’t happen, it would be okay.”

Regardless, her talent will not go to waste, nor will the time put in by those who love her. She would the first to tell you, that list is long.

She laughs: “If I had to pay someone back, I wouldn’t know where to start.”

by Jennie Treadway-Miller

Jennie was a columnist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press for eight years prior to moving to Amarillo in 2008. She is an avid reader, runner and writer.
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