As anticipation builds for the London Olympics, another kind of summer games arrives in Cincinnati. From July 4-14, 362 choirs from 63 countries compete in the World Choir Games, a biennial event taking place in the U.S. for the first time. Of the American groups, a little-known youth choir from Fort Wayne, Indiana, strives to repeat its success from the 2010 games in China.
Seven months prior to those games, in December 2009, Lori Lobsiger finds it hard to sleep. As a consultant for the World Choir Games, she needs to recruit choirs to represent the United States in the 2010 games in Shaoxing. She’s looking for groups that would be world-class competitors and goodwill ambassadors. One night, a thought occurs to her that makes her sit up in bed: Marshall White.
Lori knows Marshall from the Embassy Theater in Fort Wayne, where she previously served as executive director. She adored his youth choir, the Voices of Unity, when it performed at the theater a few years earlier. Marshall never knew his group made such a strong impression on her.
When his cell phone jingles the following day, Marshall is in the middle of Christmas cheer – the choir’s annual ritual of giving gifts and singing for corporate donors. Not only is he surprised to hear from Lori out of the blue, he’s startled by her proposition. “You want us to do what? Go where?”
Three days later, on a snowy Christmas Eve, Lori drives three-and-a-half hours from Cincinnati to Fort Wayne at the crack of dawn, determined to convince Marshall to participate. She meets him for breakfast at a Bob Evans and utters the words that they both remember vividly: “It’s your destiny to go to China.”
“He took such a deep breath, he almost sucked all the air out of the room,” Lori recalls. “Huge tears welled in his eyes.”
After a few moments, Marshall says, “You’re handing me my dream.”
That dream started in 1993, when Marshall was music director at his late father’s Baptist church. He began literally dreaming of a program that combined the arts with leadership development and jotted down notes each morning as he woke up. After four years of recurring dreams, he began putting together Unity Performing Arts Foundation, which he launched in 2000. The Voices of Unity Youth Choir is one of six programs within the UPAF organization.
While Lori confidently predicts, “If they have faith, they can do it,” Marshall hesitates to commit. The choir has never competed before, let alone on a world stage. In fact, the program doesn’t emphasize musical criteria as much as it does discipline, focus, commitment and other values that turn disadvantaged kids into leaders. They also need to raise $400,000 in six months to cover the costs of traveling 130 people. Marshall understandably doesn’t want to set his kids up for disappointment.
Once he decides to go for it, he puts together a comprehensive, disciplined plan to get there.
As in a movie montage, the kids themselves fan out across the city, raising money through bake sales, car washes, coupons and street solicitations that total $166,000. On the flip side, the adults on his team approach big donors who hold back skeptically. “They won’t raise enough money,” “they can’t compete, they’re not good enough” and “we’ve never heard of them” are some of the responses they get. Yet through faith, discipline and perseverance, they ultimately do raise the money, and Marshall considers the endeavor a victory before the group sings a single note in the opening ceremony.
Acclimating to foreign circumstances is never easy, but the kids adjust to the culture shock with grace. They cope with long trips to venues in 100-degree temperatures; rehearse in rooms without air conditioning; sleep on hard beds and consume unfamiliar food and warm beverages. “Cold water was a delicacy,” says choir member Stephanie Woodson, even in the extremely hot weather.
“They were the most poised, finest ladies and gentlemen the country could have sent,” says Lori. “Everyone was fascinated by them because they were so diverse, with all different racial backgrounds and ages from six to 60.”