• Steph Johnson

I Want to Tell You a Really Good Story

From America's Got Talent to full crisis mode...


I want to tell you a story - a really good story - about a group of people that didn't feel seen or heard in the world but somehow found the strength to form a choir. Quietly and cautiously, the choir would meet week after week to sing, to eat wholesome meals together and connect. Forming deep bonds, their pains of past traumas and loneliness began to dissipate. The poverty and homelessness that defined who they were on the street melted away each time they gathered. As the choir continued to sing, the people in the community who had often ignored their presence were instantly drawn to them. Everyone wanted to hear their triumphant songs of hope. As time went on, the singers began to realize that indeed their voices mattered and had great purpose.



And oh, how this changed everything! With healing came confidence. With human connection and creativity came joy. And then came housing, employment, and recovery from addictions, fear and self hatred. Most amazingly, the choir became family - for some, the only loving family they had ever experienced.



Then their voices caught the attention of the world's biggest stage - a national show called America's Got Talent and soon they were auditioning and performing live on the hit TV show in Pasadena, California. The incredible experience brought the choir together in new ways, lifting each member up in celebration of what they had accomplished together. They rejoiced that their voices would be heard by 15 million people and the dream of leading a divided country in empathy could soon be realized.


But not everyone could be there...




Stephen R., one of the choir's most talented and beloved members, was given a week to live only a few days before they left San Diego to audition for AGT. Too sick to travel, he stayed home with hospice to rest in his final days. Although he experienced homelessness and had multiple sclerosis, he lived every day with gratitude for his choir family, music and his poetry.  The choir called him on the phone to tell him about the experience of singing for the judges, how the lyrics he helped write would live on. Stephen heard their voices, opened his eyes one last time before taking his last breath a few hours later. 


Two days later, the choir gathered to discuss what this all meant...



In uncertain times, all we have is each other. The day is not promised. No matter how much money you have or don't have, the color of your skin, where you've been or where you are going - it really is about being kind to everyone you meet and living in the moment by making the best out of every situation. That is where we find peace, our commonality, our humanity.


The story doesn't end there!




During this pandemic our number one focus is staying connected with our VOICES choir family. This includes our 250 members, small staff and set of volunteers, as well as the entire unsheltered community that we continue to advocate for. Imagine having to navigate a "stay at home" order without a home.


Our team went into full crisis mode and I wanted to share with you the swift steps we've taken and how your dollars donated to VOICES has helped save hundreds, if not thousands of lives:


  1. Last week, we distributed approximately 1250 lbs of food.This week, we will distribute close to 5000 lbs of food. Additionally, we've been making home cooked nutritious meals and delivering to our elderly members who live below the poverty line. We included drinking water and vitamin c packets to help boost their immunity. This has helped them stay inside more comfortably and further protects them from catching the virus.

  2. We moved our unsheltered singers into hotel rooms. Our advocacy work in the community and ongoing work with local government put us first in line to receive a block of hotel rooms from the city. We moved our singers who are over 65 years of age, or living with pre-existing conditions, into these rooms. From the hotel, they will be moved into housing - this is the intention of the city and we are so grateful. This brings our number of unsheltered singers moving off the streets and into housing/safe shelter to over 55!

  3. My team and I have moved our programming online, making sure that we stay connected during this pandemic. Songwriting, guitar workshops and choir rehearsal are happening every Friday. Additionally, we've added dance classes and "cooking with Steph" episodes where we show them some of the healthy foods being prepared for them.

  4. Most importantly, the VOICES team created a memo that outlined what was needed from local government and agencies to act swiftly in protecting the spread of this virus in the homeless community. The direction from VOICES really helped get everyone (the Mayor, County, City as well as Congress and Assembly representatives) on the same page. Yesterday, the Mayor announced the opening of the Convention Center to house and practice social distancing for hundreds to thousands of individuals.They have asked VOICES to create programming for the people they bring in! This will also provide jobs for some of our choir members and potentially employ some of our staff during this time. 




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