Songs of Hope sharpens cultural perceptions

Designed and painted by Natasha ClaytonBY ELAINE KLAASSEN

In mid-June, 48 children from 11 countries are landing in the Twin Cities for Songs of Hope, a unique, long-standing summer education program. For the first three weeks of their six-week stay, they will plunge into a grueling rehearsal schedule. The rest of the time, they will bring outstanding musical shows to communities throughout Minnesota and Iowa as well as to Twin City parks and nursing homes.
Shona Kramer-LaBorde, a 2014 graduate of South High, has been involved in Songs of Hope since she was 11. She started as a regular participant and now has graduated to various levels of responsibility as a staff member. Shona’s mom is the program’s pianist, Cheryl Kramer. Her mom has been receiving tapes (now CDs and mp3s) and transcribing music for the shows “forever,” says Shona.
The beauty of SOH, according to Kramer-LaBorde, is that the program gives children from vastly different cultures the opportunity to know each other as individuals and to form a unique global culture/community. She referred various times to Songs of Hope as a “culture.” Throughout the year, the majority of kids keep up, she said, and their worlds gets bigger. “If there’s a riot in Turkey, stereotypes and perceptions don’t apply. It’s not just a story on the news. It’s not just what affects you, but what affects your global friends.”
Shona Kramer LaBordeThe key word, she says, is “together.” The fact that they do music and theater is kind of arbitrary, she feels. For example, they could be gathering here to learn about global cuisines, to study ecological systems of the Mississippi, or to build geodesic bird houses, but the main thing is to work on something together. Kids don’t need previous musical experience to be accepted.
Kramer-LaBorde likes living “like a family” with Songs of Hope participants. Since the children are underage, they travel with adults, who participate in the educational experience. Many of the adult companions are former “Hopers.” And many former adult companions are now on staff. All of them (including founders/directors Jeanne Junge and Tom Surprenant) stay in a dorm at St. Thomas University. They share chores, eat together and hang out during their spare time. A cook on staff prepares food for them, but everyone takes turns doing dishes. With access to Skype and a plethora of new friends, nobody gets too homesick. Now, in 2014, most kids speak English. Back in the early years when they didn’t, they could rely on their adult companions, who served as interpreters. Or, as Surprenant observed, they had no trouble communicating just naturally as kids do, through sign language.
“If exchange programs were good for adults, why wouldn’t they work for kids?” Traveling abroad was what gave Junge and Surprenant the idea to create SOH, in 1991. They knew how profoundly their travels had impacted their world view. Everyone they ever met who’d been in an exchange program felt that meeting people of other cultures had changed and broadened their outlook. So, Surprenant and Junge envisioned a kind of ideal education for the world of tomorrow.
Junge was immersed in theater, both as an actor and director. Surprenant had worked with Outward Bound and knew the value of experiential education. He’s also a lawyer who knows how to write grants, not to mention how to run a sound system as well as build sets and props (out of recycled materials, of course). Their backgrounds merged. Their vision was clear: To make a difference in how people can interact.
Besides being talented, the two work hard, they are organized (Tom, busy on his computer during the first half of our interview, explains, “The grant has to be in at 4:30, not 4:35.”) and they are problem-solvers. They also exude a lightness of being and have the ability to connect with the right people. Their success is, therefore, not surprising.
The program continues to grow. This year there are nearly twice as many countries involved as the first year. Altogether over the 23 years of SOH’s existence, 35 countries have been represented. Some Hopers are talking about starting SOH’s in Singapore, Turkey and New Orleans. SOH has been a five-time semifinalist considered for a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. The parent organization, Sounds of Hope, Ltd., has other offspring, the latest of which is the GLOBAL REACH™ Arts & Cultural Camp, a new, two-week program for young teenagers, which opens in August.
Seventeen concerts are already scheduled for this summer. (Times and places are listed at Songs of Hope’s website.) Local musicians such as vocal director Melvin Carter III, guitarist David Burk, percussionist Angel Diaz, and keyboardist Cheryl Kramer, from the Powderhorn neighborhood, will again run the rehearsals, create arrangements, learn the music shared by the children and help the others learn it. “It’s a collaborative effort,” says Kramer. Usually, the music the children bring is traditional folk music, but once in a while it’s something like Turkish techno funk. All the music is secular. About half the songs are from the countries represented and half are songs picked by music-lovers Junge and Surprenant.
Shona says there is “nothing like it [Songs of Hope]. It’s one of the places where I’m most happy and consistent. Even when I’m stressed, I’m never sad.” She says that within two weeks everyone becomes really good friends.
The most difficult part of the program is saying good-bye. A global family has been created. Participants and their families become friends and sometimes help each other with travel expenses (SOH has scholarships to help with tuition but not with airfare). Because email and Skype now make it so easy, Surprenant and Junge keep in touch with many “Hopers” throughout the year.
See for more about this singular entity.


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