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MPS Alumni and Homeless Choir

Ann-Elise Henzl

A unique group of gospel singers is making music in Milwaukee, at churches and other venues. What makes the choir unusual is the combination of people in it. Some are homeless. Ann-Elise Henzl attended one of the group's rehearsals, and learned that it’s hoping to take a trip abroad this summer.

For decades, Arlene Skwierawski taught at North Division High School. She was choir director. About four years ago, the retired teacher was asked bring together MPS alumni, to perform at a talent show. That was the beginning.

"So that's how it grew. And it was only supposed to be for that concert. And then they said, 'well, we're having fun,'" Skwierawski says.

So Skwierawski agreed to continue directing the MPS alumni group. The district pays her a small salary and donates space at the High School of the Arts on the near west side. This is where the singers practice every Monday night.

The choir has grown to include a few dozen members, and not all are former students. Skwierawski noticed that whenever the singers would perform at a homeless shelter, the people’s eyes there would light up. So she began inviting homeless -- and formerly homeless -- people to join. Her philosophy: if you can talk, you can learn to sing.

"That's been my goal all the way through my teaching career, to open people's eyes and to build self-esteem. That's a really big help for these homeless people. You can see that, you can just see them straightening up when they're singing at these places, because they're so used to be looked down on," Skwierawski says.

"I just went back to what I always loved. I always loved music and I loved to sing," says Linda Orr. She joined the choir when she was homeless. She says after she lost her job and her home, singing was invaluable.

"(It) gave me a sense of hope that I could get through this," Orr says.

Orr is back on her feet now, but she believes through song, she can comfort others who are struggling.

"I just think it helps open up their world, and gives them something else to think about, you know, that they're not alone, that there's other people that have been where they are or who might still be there, and they're trying to get through difficulties of that and can get through that. That there's light at the end of the tunnel," Orr says.

The type of music the group performs is gospel. And that has stirred interest overseas. Choir member Judy Straus says people in Europe hunger to hear the energetic, uplifting religious songs, so contacts there have invited the group to perform in France this summer.

"There's much more of that 'formal' style of music. Gospel takes you outside that box a whole lot more. Europe doesn't encounter that style of music. So they'll embrace us," Straus says.

To raise money for the trip, the choir is selling candy and performing for a fee, often at churches. Co-director K.C. Williams says singers who make a decent living will pay for part of their trip. That way, the choir's fundraising can subsidize those who don't have the money.

"We talked about what pleasure would we give those who were formerly homeless a chance to see the other side of the world. The homeless community in this choir, we don't look at them as that. They're a part of our family and we help as much as we can, " Williams says.

If the choir cannot make its fundraising goal by summer, members plan to do something less expensive, such tour parts of the U.S. Or they'll put off their trip until next year. But singer Troy Jarrett, who used to be homeless and addicted to drugs, says the music -- not the promise of travel -- is the most important thing to him.

"Music soothes the soul, and it's hard like really to put into words, but once you hear that music, vibrating in your eardrums and stuff like that, you get a chance to escape whatever is going on in your life," Jarrett says.

Music has bookended Jarrett's life. When he attended MPS decades ago, he sang in North Division’s choir, and the person who was his director was none other than Arlene Skwierawski. Now, after getting himself off drugs and the street, Jarrett has reunited with his love of song and one of the people who helped nurture it.

Ann-Elise Henzl became News Director in September 2017.