When the lights go on and the curtain is drawn on May 26th at Laval’s Chateau Royal Reception Hall, it’ll be show time for a significant number of talented students of the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board (SWLSB).

The Laurier Gala and Star Fest is an annual tradition that showcases and celebrates artistic talent through the performers that take the stage to sing, dance, and play instruments, but also awards students from across the board’s vast territory for excelling in academics, school perseverance, sports, arts and community involvement. The event is funded by the Sir Wilfrid Laurier Foundation and its major sponsor, Caisse Desjardins.

The Laurier Gala has been running since 2005, despite continuous cutbacks to school board resources in recent years. The Star Fest came into play in 2011, as a way to highlight local talent amongst the board’s students. “The board of directors felt that this kind of endeavor was part of the Foundation’s mission and did not want to see such an important event that touches so many students come to an end because of budget cuts. A few years ago, one of its members had the idea of putting together a talent show which is how the Star Fest came about,” explains Christian Frechette, President of the Foundation.

Hosted by local celebrities Freeway Frank from Virgin Radio and Jacinthe, an international singing star and recording artist, the evening brings together students, their families and key players in the community to celebrate the diversity in talent and learning at SWLSB.

Organized in large part by the board’s Communications Department, the event recognizes between 200 and 250 students, with approximately 1200 audience members. In early spring, close to 100 students audition to perform in Star Fest, and about 15 acts are then selected to perform in the event. The auditions are judged by a committee made of up music industry professionals such as Freeway Frank and Jacinthe, school principals, and Paolo Galati, president of Whammo Music.

Galati not only participates in judging during the audition process, but he also coaches the selected performers in all aspects of their performance, such as increasing their confidence on stage, helping the performers learn to connect with the audience, and providing constructive criticism so that the artists can reach their full potential, both in their performance and in life. “Year after year I’m amazed at the talent we have in our school board,” says Galati, who is also a SWLSB commissioner and councillor for the city of Laval.

Susan O’Keeffe, the graphic arts technician from the board’s Communications Department, and Maxeen Jolin, the Communications Coordinator, form the team that lays out all the groundwork in the preparation phase prior to the Star Fest auditions, as they work directly with the schools in organizing the initial auditions, as well as sending the families of student performers or award recipients all of the information they will need about rehearsals and the event itself. O’Keeffe believes that the event is a pivotal moment in many students’ lives, whether they are performing in the show or receiving an award. “This helps the students develop their sense of self-esteem,” says O’Keeffe.

Sometimes, the Star Fest can be a springboard in launching a young artist’s musical career, as is the case for 16-year-old Rosemere High student Vanessa Piunno, who has recently signed a recording contract and is set to release her first single this spring.

Jacinthe knows firsthand how important it is to have exposure early on. Like many others, she got her first record deal as a teenager and has performed internationally over a 20-year career to date. Now a mother of two, she feels that participating in the Star Fest and Laurier Gala for the past few years is a way of giving back to her community and to young talent. “It’s been incredible to see all of the artists progress and to be a part of that…it’s enriching for me too,” she says.

At the auditions and backstage during the show, you will find Aimee Parsons, elementary school principal, reassuring students and guiding them right up to the very moment that they take the stage. Parsons believes that this event is one that demonstrates the board’s commitment to recognizing students’ success in a variety of ways, not just academically. “Holding up the arts as important as sports and other types of learning…it’s really an opportunity for students to see each other being successful in different ways,” says Parsons. “This is a visual representation of the Foundation’s investment in students.”

Archie Cifelli, Executive Vice-President of Kloda Focus Group, the company that supplies all of the audio, lighting and special effects technicians for the event, agrees that events like this are what bring a community together to celebrate students of all ages. Cifelli joined the Foundation’s board of directors in 2014. “Entrepreneurs need to get involved and help out so everyone can evolve,” he says. “It’s a great feeling to participate and get involved, but events like this just don’t happen by themselves.” Cifelli notes that so much time and effort is put forth in the months and weeks leading up to the event, and the final result is beyond impressive.

“Sometimes all students need is a little encouragement and it’s amazing what they can do and come up with,” says Cifelli. He urges local businesses and community members alike to take part in this annual event. “Step up and ask the question about how you can help and get involved,” he says.

Bringing a vast community together for this event is a key notion for Jennifer Maccarone, Chair of the SWLSB Council of Commissioners. “This event is about our students and celebrating their success, their talent and our wonderful community,” she says. “I prepare myself to be impressed, proud, passionate, and thrilled to just be present for the evening.”

The 2016 Laurier Gala and Star Fest is sure to impress its audience members this May. “It’s not a competition. There’s no one winner,” says Galati. “Everyone’s a winner and it’s a celebration of the amazing talent we have in our board.” Galati stresses the importance of students having the chance to express themselves in a big way.

“In life, it’s important to dream…and this gives young kids the opportunity to dream and be on stage,” he says. “Some might then go on to fulfill that dream later in life…and this prepares them for that.”

One wonders if it’s any coincidence that Piunno’s first single is called “Dreamers”…