Lost Voices at Vista Maria

We don’t know their stories, but each girl has one. They are tall and short, thin and not-so-thin, brash and reserved. Some of them show a sadness in their eyes deeper than you want to imagine, and others wear a mask that most of the world will never penetrate.

And they are children.

These are the young women living at Vista Maria, a foster care facility for at-risk girls in Dearborn Heights, Michigan. Most of them are there to escape lives of abuse, neglect, and exploitation. Some of them were rescued from human trafficking operations – which is a twenty-first century euphemism for slavery. They range in age from eleven to eighteen, but the average is about fourteen.

Let’s put that into perspective. When I was fourteen years old, the girl I liked “went out” with me on our first “real” date. Her mom dropped us off at a theater to see a movie. I think it was The Great Race, because we were not allowed to go to the racy new Bond film, Thunderball. Then her dad picked us up and sat by himself at another table while I bought her a root beer float at A&W.

Sadly, these girls have lived in a very different world. And now they find themselves in the sanctuary of Vista Maria, getting the help they need as they try to rebuild lives that should be way too new and pure to need rebuilding. Last week, thanks to funding from NorthRidge Church in Plymouth, MI, my Lost Voices team had the incredible privilege to join in that effort.

The Lost Voices experience starts with four days of intensive songwriting workshops. Our team members work with the kids to provide melodies and musical backing, helping them transform their poetry into songs. We also write group songs, agreeing on a theme and then crafting a song as a team, one line at a time. Every note of melody, every line of verse, and even the beat is agreed on by the group, and every decision is made by acclimation.

On the fifth day the kids put on a concert for their peers, teachers, and staff, to perform the work they have written. They are supported musically by the professional musicians on our team.

So on a recent Monday, Annie Capps, Jen Cass, and I met two groups of young women, some from “Rose House” and some from “Deroy House.” The three of us had performed a concert the week before, to introduce all the Vista Maria girls to the folk and blues music we typically write and perform. The girls, much more familiar with rap, hip-hop, and rhythm and blues, had been warmly receptive to the easy storytelling style of American roots music.

That first day was predictably chaotic. We were getting to know each other, working through some scheduling glitches, and trying to convince each other that it was even remotely possible to write twenty songs in one week and assemble them into a concert. Despite all the pandemonium, by the end of the day we were all friends, and we were deep into producing a group song with each house. The Rose girls had decided that they wanted to write about a young girl battling internal conflict;

There’s a war inside me that no one can see
Voices inside me like raging seas.
I am a prisoner, come set me free.
There’s beauty, love and majesty.

The Deroy girls were exploring a slightly more upbeat message;

She’ll be alright; y estara bien.
She conquered the world and all that she’d been through
And all her dreams came true
She’ll be alright.

The Spanish in that chorus came from one girl who was born in Honduras, and another from El Salvidor. I don’t care to speculate how these children came to be in Michigan.

We were also starting to work with poems that each of the girls had written, words that we would then weave into songs.

On Tuesday and Wednesday we were a lot more organized. We had the basic structure of both group songs worked out, the level of trust was established, and the creative flow was beginning to take off. We had individual songs started with nearly every girl, but there were some struggles. One was having trouble expressing herself in the journal we gave her. She told me, “I’m not smart. I can’t do this.” We worked together for a while, then she came up with a song about maintaining a brave front;

Puttin’ on a show, puttin’ on a show,
Everywhere I go, I’m puttin’ on a show.

Another girl told me that she really wasn’t very good with words. After some encouragement and time alone with her journal, she handed me a two-line poem dedicated to someone in her past;

I’m going to make you a picture.
I’ll draw it on my wrist with a razor.

We began to see more of these searing but somehow beautiful glimpses into the hearts of each girl. One by one, they travelled deep into their souls and came out clutching truths that up to that point they may have been unable or unwilling to confront. They worked with us to craft those truths into music, allowing us to go along with them on those difficult journeys.

Thursday was the last day before the concert. At this point nearly all of the girls had decided that they were way too nervous, so were not going to perform. This is normal for the kids in the Lost Voices experience, and I knew how to work each one of them through it, encouraging them to finish their songs and rehearse with the rest of us anyway, just in case. By the end of the day we could all see the framework of a really good show.

On Friday morning we got together three hours before the beginning of the concert. We spent some time “blocking” the show and working through the last vestiges of stage fright, then did a complete run-through. We practiced our stagecraft and the fine art of walking up to a microphone without tripping over the tangle of cables and wires on the floor. We rehearsed not covering our faces and sprinting back to our chairs after the song, instead standing off to the side of the microphone and accepting the applause from the audience.

And then that audience began to arrive. Annie, Jen, and I tuned our guitars and whispered last minute instructions to the girls. We were joined by guitarist Eric Janetsky, Jen’s husband, who had worked with us for a session earlier in the week and had guitar riffs worked out to support many of the girls.

Finally the audience settled in, and the show began. One by one, songs emerged that both tore at our hearts and gave us hope for the whole human race. At certain points, girls in the audience collapsed into hysterical crying, triggered by a particular word or a line. Each time this happened, staff would gently lead them out into the hall where they could be comforted. I was informed after the show that this was one of the best things that could have happened; that many of these girls had been totally closed off, and that their melt-downs meant that they were now more open to help from the therapists.

And then it was over. Every one of the girls participated, and every one of them was charged with that inimitable sense of accomplishment every performer feels at the end of a successful show. Everyone in the audience and everyone on the stage was moved to the core.

After the audience left, and the cameras shut down, and the sound crew began wrapping up their miles of cables, we joined the kids in doing what kids are supposed to do. We ate pizza, and we laughed, and we teased each other, and we felt great. The events that had, ironically, brought us all together in this place at this time were light years away. All we had, all that mattered at that moment was the music and the applause still echoing in the room.

And we all knew that not one of us would ever forget that day.