CHICAGO — The voices raised in unison in the Community Hall of Chicago’s 12th District Police Station on a recent Thursday night belonged to less than a dozen young people singing gospel and R&B songs. It was a scene that might have seemed better suited to a church or school stage, more familiar settings for a vocal ensemble.
But the pandemic has become familiar to many, including the Voices of Youth Ensemble (VOYE), a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to tap into the power of performance, song and common purpose to help young people from underprivileged environments to understand and embrace their highest selves. VOYE rehearsed at George W. Collins’ seniors’ apartments across from the police building at 1412 S. Blue Island Ave. for seven years until COVID forced the set to move to a church. But after nearly three months in a West Side church, itself located in a temporary location, VOYE found herself homeless.
That’s when a member of the CPD’s 12th District Advisory Committee brought VOYE’s dilemma to the attention of Paris Edwards, a community police officer.
“She put me in touch with Miss (Debra) Kelly and we discussed her temporary use of the community hall so they could have a place to practice,” said Edwards, a 23-year 12th District veteran. . “It actually worked really well for us too because the department, we try to get our members to have a better relationship with young people. It was a perfect opportunity for us to bring them to our house and develop this relationship with them.
Since Jan. 22, young people between the ages of 4 and 22 have been stretching their vocal cords and learning choreography three nights a week and putting smiles on officers’ faces, Edwards said.
Mom Breanna Ratcliff said every week they come to the 12th District building to practice, there are visitors – Kelly supporters or police officers who come to listen.
After his March 17 shift, Edwards danced alongside members of the ensemble doing the electric slide, talking to Ratcliff’s 8-year-old son De’Andre about who would win a dance battle and letting a little boy slip on his police vest after training. Edwards kept smiling.
“As long as I’m not asked to sing, it’s fine,” Edwards said with a laugh. “I can talk. But sing? I can pretend a little.
“The events we attend with young people are often centered around sports, mainly basketball. For them to come up with something totally on the other end of the spectrum, music being what they were doing, it was just something different.
Galewood resident Debra Kelly, 61, has been volunteering her time to lead children in their musical pursuits since 2013. She founded the group when the singing group’s original home closed, the social services agency Marcy-Newberry Association. Kelly, who ran the set at the agency, kept the group together as an outlet for students. More than 60 young people have gone through VOYE and those who do are long-term. His assistant manager has been playing in the ensemble since he was 10 years old.
Gladys Jones put five of her grandchildren in VOYE. At 71, Jones attests that she will always support Kelly’s efforts to provide something fun for children to do. While the younger kids focused on dance moves like flossing during a song, the older kids went through the choreography steps behind the little ones tapping on their phones.
“Ms. Kelly has been so good with these kids,” Jones said. “With the kids, you have to expose them to the positive things here. Kelly said the group will be heading to a play in Munster, Indiana, in April Excursions like this are not unusual, Jones said.
Bridgette McKinzie lives in the Rive-Sud district. Her 10-year-old goddaughter is part of VOYE.
“I started supporting and following her because I saw something good,” McKinzie said. “The level of concern she has…every child has a place and I admire that. If she has a bus full of children and she needs someone to go with her, I do. It’s a good program, especially when there’s nothing left for the children to do.
McKinzie mentioned that finding permanent rehearsal space is Kelly’s goal. As the weather warms, the Community Hall is booked out more frequently with police training and other events and may not be as easily accessible. A GoFundMe was launched in October 2021 to raise funds for a permanent space. Nearly $2,000 of a goal of $15,000 has been raised so far. McKinzie said Kelly is focused on making sure VOYE doesn’t die.
“We’re trying to find a place that’s ours,” Kelly said. “We are looking for funding, grants and donations to help us get a building that we can put the key in. We appreciate being able to come here (12th district), but in April it’s going to end, and then we’re going to go back to square one to try to find a place to go where I can work with the kids.
Children like Laniyah Falkner, 14, an eighth-grade student at Pilsen Community Academy who sings solo in VOYE. The band came to her grandfather’s church and asked him to join after seeing her perform. Since joining, she has been telling her friends about it in hopes that they will join too.
Looking back, she said she probably wouldn’t have had so much exposure to the city if she hadn’t joined VOYE.
“I’m not one to go out or be outspoken,” Falkner said. “It really helped me come out of my shell and really find out who I am as a singer and as a person. My mind was never a singer; I always thought I’d just be a little church girl singing for her grandfather, but once I found the set, it really helped me figure out what I wanted to be – a singer. That’s a goal.”
“I was told when they first arrived they were a bit off – obviously walking into a police station you don’t know what to expect,” Edwards said. “Since that date, now they come in and are like, ‘Hey, here we are!’ They feel much more comfortable, which is good not only in the building, but comfortable with the agents and interacting with them, which again is very good for us. interaction with them, we were able to tell them about the programs for young people that we offer here in the 12th arrondissement. Developing their partnership, this relationship with them is beneficial for us too”,