It’s not out of the ordinary for a school auditorium to be filled on a weeknight for a choir concert, however, the concert recently put on at the St. Michael-Albertville Middle School West auditorium was anything but ordinary.
Singers of all abilities, ranging in age from ages 6 to nearly 60, put on an extraordinary evening for the audience at the recent 5th annual Ogni Voce Unified Choir performance (Ogni Voce means “every voice” in Italian). What makes this choir unique is that it combines typical singers with singers who have intellectual disabilities, bringing them together for an opportunity to connect through music. The result was as much a joyful celebration as a concert, with singing, dancing and everything in between by more than 100 singers of all abilities who filled the stage.
The Ogni Voce Unified Choir is an offshoot of the STMA Stallions, the area Special Olympics group which provides sporting and community events for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Each year the Stallions team up with STMA students and staff who volunteer their time to put on the Ogni Voce Unified Choir.
Increasingly, the STMA Stallions have been working hard to find ways to bring individuals of all abilities together through sports and other activities such as the choir, furthering the Inclusive Movement that’s at the center of Special Olympics Minnesota’s mission and vision. As the Ogni Voce Unified Choir program stated, “The Stallions firmly believe that we’re better together, as we live unified, play unified, learn unified and sing unified.” In these Unified programs both individuals with intellectual disabilities and those without are accepted for who they are and what they bring to the group.
Song selections for the choir’s performance were drawn largely from current pop music and Disney movie songs which were already familiar to the choir participants. One number featured appearances by Spiderman (Drew Nohr), Batman (Travis Knight) and Superman (Mark Blenkush) who played their parts well and delighted the audience with their theatrics. During the “Cupid Shuffle,” a favorite for many of the Stallions, the choir members filled the space in front of the risers and danced as they sang. There was even a special guest performance by members of Darby’s Dancers, a dance group that pairs dancers with and without special needs together as buddies so everyone has the opportunity to experience the joy of dance.
The Ogni Voce performance wrapped up with the song, “This is Me” from the current movie “The Greatest Showman,” with soloist and Stallions’ Unified Partner, Emma Anderson opening the song.
‘A PLACE FOR US’
This selection was a fitting end to the extraordinary evening as the song lyrics, “I know that there’s a place for us, for we are glorious” seemed so moving and appropriate that it brought some in the audience to tears.
Volunteer organizers Lisa Benson, a Special Education teacher at STMA High School and Aimee Libby, Head of Delegation for the STMA Stallions, thanked all those who had helped them bring the event together — including the STMA School District, which donated the auditorium space for the group to use.
While this was not an official STMA event, the district staff, many of whom were in attendance, are very supportive of this concert and other Stallions-sponsored activities as they continue to meet the needs of special education students and families.
Aimee Libby shared, “Tonight was about giving everyone a chance to shine – together. Many times bullying and mistreatment of students who receive special education services stems from typical students not knowing how to interact with peers who are different from them. Many have never had a chance to stop and take some time to find out what those with different abilities from them have to offer. When we break down these barriers, something beautiful happens, just as we saw tonight. Most of our choir members met on stage for the very first time tonight, yet watching them interact and dance around together on stage, you never would’ve known that. If we give kids the chance to spend quality time together, friendships are formed and hearts are forever changed. There’s no doubt that the world is a better place when inclusion happens!”
When asked to describe the performance, one concert-goer summed up the evening quite perfectly, sharing, “The Ogni Voce Unified Choir Concert was amazing. I couldn’t help but think there wasn’t a single place anyone on that stage would rather be. As amazing as the singing was, the number of participants in the choir was just as amazing. I’m not sure how to capture, in words, such emotion for both the audience and the singers. It was powerful, emotional, and simply amazing to watch it all unfold.”
For more information about the STMA Stallions and opportunities they offer to those of all abilities, feel free to visit their website at www.stmaspecialolympics.com.