She steps up to the microphone, visibly nervous. Her mentor watches her with pride from the front of the audience. As she makes her initial introduction, her voice cracks, but then with ever-growing confidence,

You are the light of my life

You are the reason that my heart skips a beat

When I see you, the way you hold my hand, it gives me chills

When you say you love me, it gives me this feeling that I can't explain

You are the wind beneath my wings and forever you will always be

For 15-year-old Angelica Foster, this was her first time on stage in front of an audience. Her first time happened to be on the stage at the LUS Pavilion at Festival International de Louisiane in downtown Lafayette.

Angelica says, though she was nervous at first, "when you get [on stage], it's like totally different. Everybody pays attention, and it's just an amazing feeling."

Her mentor, among others? Alex Johnson, or "Poetic Soul" as she's called on-stage, who is the Performance Instructor for Project S.O.U.N.D, a non-profit group that teaches high school students to express themselves through spoken word and multimedia art.

"Personally...I'm so excited that they're able to overcome their fears and get on stage in front of all these people and pour out their feelings--pour out their emotions--their heart and everything that they are," Johnson says.

Angelica is only one among a group of high school teenagers who take part in the program, usually as part of schools' creative writing programs. The pieces they perform can best be described as part rap, part theater, part poetry. Self-expression is one of the driving forces of the program, and despite their relative inexperience in life, these teenagers have much to say.

Love, sex, racism, bullying--the topics run the gamut with lyrics that are sometimes provocative, sometimes uncomfortable, but very much true to the performer's heart.

The idea for Project S.O.U.N.D. started two-and-a-half years ago with Rosalyn Spencer, Project Director of the group and current librarian in Lafayette Parish. She says she had to 'beat the pavement' in order to get her upstart program into the school system, starting with Comeaux High School and eventually spreading to Carencro High School, Opelousas High School, Opelousas Middle School, St. Martinville High School, and Grand Couteau.

"We're teaching kids that they have their own voice, they have their own style," Spencer says. "We want more than just writers; we want creative thinkers" who can adapt to any situation, whether it be a job interview or writing a resume.

Jessica Bordelon, Writing Instructor for Project S.O.U.N.D., says the process of molding those creative thinkers can be challenging. Through a variety of writing exercises, she gets her students "ready to write what's appropriate poetry for spoken word--to really get them writing and being creative and taking those risks with their words."

Exercises like comparing themselves to a superhero, finding their inner strength and confidence through that character, helps get the creative juices flowing, Bordelon says.

Spencer says the group uses hip-hop, modern poetry and "old school" poetry because "we want to show that metaphor is a metaphor--it's always going to be used. Everyone uses it differently. But we want to give them the foundation to show them there's more than one way...to express themselves."

It's a work of love, Bordelon, Spencer, and Johnson say. None of them collects a paycheck, and their program is funded almost entirely through grants, such as those provided by the Acadiana Center for the Arts. Add to that the countless hours involved in preparing and in travelling from school to school to teach their curriculum, and it essentially has become a full-time job for them.

The results are worth it, they say.

19-year-old Kursti Mundy and 18-year-old Langston Alcendor are two of the more outgoing members of Project S.O.U.N.D., cheering on their peers as they perform on-stage while trying to whip the crowd into a frenzy.

"I've been looking for something like this for awhile," says Langston, who's been writing poetry since he was eight. "And when it finally came to me as an opportunity, I took it."

"You look at my appearance, and you wouldn't think I could do this," he says. "When I do do it, they're so surprised, they feel like, 'Oh, I can do it too,' and that's where they get inspired."

Kursti agrees and hopes her words and her performance will inspire others to express themselves in the same way, hopefully joining the ranks of Project S.O.U.N.D. as well.