The Voices of Hope

iStock generic choirbook shot

Some members have asked to start using sheet music, so they follow the shape there while others follow my hand. Our binders are organized alphabetically and contain a simple lyric sheet as well as a copy of sheet music for each song in our repertoire. A table of contents became necessary as some members became easily frustrated with the alphabetical order, so amending the binders to include page numbers and a table of contents served us well.

At this point, Voices of Hope has standards that we keep in rotation all the time in both rehearsal and performance and seasonal pieces that are new and added to the end of the binder. We divide our year into fall semester (August–November), holiday (December), spring semester (January–May), and summer (June and July).

The Voices of Hope has successfully hosted members of the city council and the mayor at the Friendship House, introduced these government leaders to individuals who frequent the drop-in center, and performed some of our favorite songs including “Hotel California” by the Eagles, “Linger” by the Cranberries, and “Let It Be” by the Beatles. Choir members voiced their desire to be a part of the Morgantown Art Walk last fall, so we set up outside the Friendship House and prepared three different sets to perform throughout the evening. Passersby could sit and listen or explore the drop-in center, which was left open so people could view the client-created art that adorned the walls. Choir members invited friends and family to come see them perform, meet the group, and to sing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver with us. Ryan recalled the sense of belonging and fellowship present among members as they rushed to set up chairs, hang additional lighting outside, and prepare refreshments for visitors on both occasions.

I do not want to paint the picture that every discussion goes smoothly and along my time frame. Nor do I want to portray our rehearsals to be the epitome of efficiency, professionalism, and collaboration. We strive to adhere to our guidelines and vision statement, “Rewriting the narrative around homelessness and addiction in our community through music making, group participation, and advocacy,” and we are completely human in that attempt. When writing our first song together, our version of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” I planned for one rehearsal to be enough time to complete lyrics for three verses and one chorus together. I thought we would use a whiteboard and work together seamlessly to create our song. That process took four weeks and almost inspired a fight as some members felt their voices were not being heard in the process of creating lyrics.

Do we have days where we warm up, run through eights songs, and leave feeling totally accomplished? Definitely. Do we have days where everyone is stressed out, talking over top of one another, arguing about whether a passage should say “she said” or “and said,” or passing out in a chair at the back of the room because they used right before they came by? Yes, we do. And the members keep coming back. So do I.

As Ryan and I discussed why our recipe seems to work, we identified the emotional and physical reactions to the rehearsal and performance processes. Ryan, a recovering addict and peer recovery specialist for Health Right, shared his experience that any kind of connection is going to help. His basic understanding is that, neurologically speaking, enjoyable group activity that offers human connection releases endorphins, and the brain will in return produce dopamine:

And it just feels you know … people may not be able to describe it the same way I just did, but it just feels good. It’s like a natural high. So I mean maybe it’s a sneaky way of saying like, hey, there is something else that like can make you feel this way. And I think if people are able to consistently do those things, then they just kind of inherently learn that like, hey, there’s other ways I can make myself feel good, you know? It’s like ok, well … there’s the seed, and maybe something will grow from that.

Other members have shared at the conclusion of rehearsals that choir was the best hour they had in weeks. Some members sit quietly crying or in reflection while others sing around them; some members get angry or frustrated and leave rehearsal only to return and apologize to the group. The open space created at rehearsals coupled with the ability to gently hold one another accountable are both building a sense of community.

A specific moment I saw this community pull together was at a family- friendly holiday event hosted by the West Virginia Black Bears baseball team. The Voices of Hope was invited for the second year to sing carols while families made crafts, had cookies, and took photos with Santa. The holidays can be a challenging time for individuals in recovery and for those experiencing homelessness, as memories and intense feelings of nostalgia and grief can cloud present reality and lead to disconnection. When we attended the event, a member who had not sung with us long, in early recovery from addiction and recently released from incarceration, told us they invited their ex-partner to stop by and bring their daughter. They shared with the group that the child was born while they were in prison, and because of the rules and itinerary of their recovery house, they had only met their daughter once. Near the end of the event, the member found them and spent a few minutes holding their daughter and speaking kindly to their ex. Group members stood back taking pictures and sharing in the joy that their friend could spend this small amount of time with their family. They offered support after the child left, and sadness crept across the member’s face. The new member smiled through his tears and thanked everyone for their kindness and sharing their stories of estranged loved ones. One member replied, “We are all a lot of things, but we are also members of the Voices of Hope, and this is kind of what we do.”

Off the Page

At times, our vision statement—“Rewriting the narrative around homelessness and addiction in our community through music making, group participation, and advocacy”— seems lofty, but it is what we do. On the advocacy front, the Voices of Hope performances open channels of communication with city leaders, state legislators, and members of local law enforcement and judicial systems as we invite them to sing with us at the Friendship House or offer holiday carols at their doorsteps. A different face of addiction is shared with the outside community as we sing, laugh, and generally get down during family-friendly events downtown or organize a fundraising concert with all proceeds going to the Morgantown Community Kitchen that has fed them many times and to which they would like to give something back. We have attended city council meetings as a group, not to perform, but to support one another in voicing concerns about topics from bench installation, Narcan accessibility, and safety.

Some of the seemingly smaller scale and less tangible accomplishments occur in our group participation and musicking. Milan Puskar Health Right considers the Voices of Hope part of their harm-reduction approach to recovery. Rehearsal is an hour of singing and generally some time in fellowship before and after during which members are not using. Any measurable amount of time in which their clients are not actively harming themselves is an achievement.

The Friendship House views Voices of Hope as one of its most successful groups, where members continually bring friends with them to try out choir and are always ready to share why they participate. I view it as a successful group because members tell me things like, “Well it was either come to choir or sit at home and shoot some smack, so I brought my ass down here,” and then flash me a smile like a child who is fully aware of their level of orneriness. I am not conceited enough to believe my choir is keeping this addict from using all day or ever again, but I do share in their joy and freedom of engaging with life, without drugs, and truly enjoying those moments. Recovery involves building a tool kit of people, places, and things that help keep you sober, grounded, and accountable. For some members choir is simply enjoyment, and for others it is a functional tool.

Success in the twelve-step recovery programs is a life that is happy, joyous, and free. As I redefine success with Voices of Hope and in my career through that lens, I am happy to see collaborative social justice, the truly effective kind, evolving from choral musicking. We are building community, both insular and external, through connections centered around choral music, which, I hope, will continue to foster social change. Social change and the notion of social justice, working toward a society where every individual is honored as they are at that moment, equates to a sense of freedom. The path to solutions is already present in the voices of those individuals around me. As we keep connecting those voices to community members in positions of leadership or with talents and means to collaborate with them, changes will occur. Most imperative to me is the reminder that the changes may be solely within the members of my group and myself but not the community at large, and that is still a West Virginia success story.

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