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Layesha Walton, of Tampa, Fla., center, leads the girls in a spiritual dance routine Thursday during the Dream Girlz Gathering at Cumberland County College in Vineland.

VINELAND - Melinda Watts left Bridgeton to pursue her dream, and now she's returning to share it.

The 31-year-old, who now lives in California, always imagined that one day she would make it as a gospel singer. After spending time as an English teacher, Watts auditioned for a reality television talent competition similar to "American Idol" in 2008 called "Gospel Dream" on the Gospel Music Channel.

Watts, among the thousands who auditioned in Los Angeles, won the competition and released an album called "People Get Ready" the following year. For much of the past two years, she has been doing what she had always set out to do: touring the country, singing and spreading her message.

Now she has come home again, this time as organizer of the Dream Girlz Gathering, a three-day conference at Cumberland County College designed to inspire girls to be smart, healthy and whole while tackling difficult subjects and societal problems such as drug abuse and teen pregnancy.

A group of young girls surrounded Watts on Thursday at the George P. Luciano Center for Public Service and Leadership, each trying to get the most out of their hug before moving on to separate conference rooms for the afternoon's activities.

Singing gospel alone left her feeling like there was a void, Watts said. It was the same feeling she said she used to get when she taught, like there was a way, somehow, that she could reach and help more people.

Although the dream of singing gospel stayed with her since she first started singing at 9 years old, realizing that dream made her want to do more. There had to be a way, she said, to capture both the positives of gospel singing and teaching and to bring them together.

Watts, who has started other outreach programs such as Project Sunday - which also mentors young women - and Blossom Ministries, feels like she has accomplished that with Dream Girlz.

"I really found my purpose in connecting with young women and helping troubled girls," she said. "My calling was to help, and that's what brought this all together. I want to give back, and I want to plant that seed."

The conference continues today and includes a gospel concert with Watts and several other nationally recognized gospel singers. On Saturday, about 200 girls will participate in a purity ceremony at a local church.

Dream Girlz is also hitting the road. The conference will tour 12 cities this year, including Sacramento, New York City, and Cleveland.

Although she left the county to pursue first an education at Rutgers University and then her dream in California, Watts said she never has forgotten where she came from. She never wanted to, either.

"I'm always coming back home, and even when I'm other places I'm thinking about home," she said. "This is where I'm from. I feel like it's a part of me, like it's my responsibility."

Although the conference tackles some tough issues, notably teen pregnancy, which is a significant problem in Cumberland County, it also is about bringing girls and young women together to help foster friendship and self-esteem.

Bridgeton resident Shales Hall, 20, volunteered to help at the conference after hearing about it through her church, Glory Tabernacle in Bridgeton. This kind of opportunity, one that's exclusively for females, isn't the kind of thing that comes around too often, she said.

Hall said she cannot remember ever being a part of something like this when she was young, but she's happy to see the girls get a chance to do so now. About 160 girls showed up for the conference Thursday, many more than the 40 that organizers had first expected.

Hall said the opportunity for the girls to see someone who has made it is an inspiring thing.

"They see what she's done and they know now they can do something better with their lives," she said.

Before participating in a dance class at the conference, Destiny Smith, 11, of Salem City, Salem County, talked with her mother, Davita Coley, about how they heard of the event.

It was a fluke, really, they said. They were shopping for school supplies in a local Staples when they ran into Watts.

She told them she was putting on a conference and that they should come along.

"I love everything about this," Smith said. "I love everything we're doing."

If you want to go

Although the conference is for girls only, tonight's gospel concert is open to the public. The show starts at 7 p.m. at the school's Frank Guaracini Jr. Fine and Performing Arts Center, with seating starting at 6:45 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at the theater box office.

Contact Edward Van Embden:

856-649-2072

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