When East High welcomed its new chorus teacher Karen Williams last year, she noticed the lack of a formal vocal group at the city high school. Williams did everything in her power to start one. It was not easy converting her three chorus classes into one serious vocal ensemble, but with persistence, conviction and tremendous student initiative, the East High Panthers Vocal Ensemble soon was formed.

"It was the mother of all long-shots -- but once [the students] bought into it, it took off beyond my wildest imagination," Williams said.

And so it did.

On Oct. 8, just one year after the ensemble's debut performance at an East High pep rally, the group received a phone call that became an opportunity of a lifetime for the 30 students. Due to an anonymous recommendation, the ensemble was thrilled to learn it has been invited to perform at New York City's Lincoln Center, the Statue of Liberty and the United Nations during a visit beginning Monday through next Thursday.

"I was trying to hold back tears -- until I realized everyone around me was crying, too," said East High senior Corey Threet when he first found out about the invitation to New York City.

Williams and the students all stress that the road to the Big Apple has not been an easy one. It has required a lot of hard work, dedication and optimism from everyone involved. Each student member had to sign a contract promising to stay out of trouble and maintain at least an 85 percent average in every class. They have also committed long hours to practicing, which has meant foregoing lunch and practicing before and after school.

In addition to the demanding vocal preparation for their New York City debut, the ensemble has been fundraising nonstop to collect the $12,000 needed to make the trip cost-free for the students. As of Thanksgiving, the group had raised $3,000. It also recently gained the support of the Buffalo Public School district (although its contribution was still unknown at this writing).

What the East High Panthers Vocal Ensemble may still lack in funding, it makes up for with abundant amounts of undeniable talent, infectious energy and genuine charisma. Now, the students are finally getting a chance to sing beyond just their school auditorium and shine in some of New York City's most notable institutions and celebrated monuments.

One of the vocalists, Mariah "Tokyo" Walker, a junior at East, summed up the whole ensemble's outlook on this incredible opportunity: "I feel excited and accomplished; it is going to be very memorable for me."

Donations to help offset the cost of the trip can be sent to: East High Panthers Vocal Ensemble, 820 Northampton St., Buffalo, NY 14211.

Natalie Murphy is a senior at City Honors.