Pick of the Week

Singing for Africa's Children

In 1986, a 5-year-old girl named Prossie left her home in Uganda and was chosen to join the African Children's Choir on an international tour. Leaving a difficult childhood behind, she entered "a new world where everything was perfect."

Her journey took her to various cities and even Disneyland. At the time, the African Children's Choir was in its second year of touring.

Founded by human-rights worker Ray Barnett, the choir was formed to serve orphaned and impoverished children in Africa. As noted on the choir's Web site, Barnett heard a BBC news report in 1984 that told of 150,000 children starving to death in northern Uganda. He visited the country to see what was happening.

"While we were in Uganda, we gave a lift to a very small boy, and he sang for the entire journey in the car," explains Barnett. "When I got back to Canada, and people were not very interested in Uganda, I remembered this small boy. I thought, 'If we could take a group of these beautiful children to the West, it would surely raise money to help their country.'"

Raised money goes to relief efforts and development projects. A main goal is to establish schools and provide education scholarships for children in Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Sudan and South Africa. The choir is currently providing support to more than 7,000 children.

Each year, new children are chosen to sing in the choir. Prossie was selected again in 1988. After her second tour, she returned home to pursue her education, funded by the organization.

Now 20 years later, Prossie is back with the choir, this time as choir director and chauffeur. She spent several months training the children in Uganda before traveling began. She is very appreciative of her time with the group.

"I want to thank the organization for their love and generosity. I want them to know that I would not be here if it wasn't for them."

Traveling with Prossie are six other volunteers, including tour leader David Turner. Turner first heard the choir in Regina, Canada.

"After three or four songs in, I was hooked. I fell in love with the organization. I really wanted to help out."

Turner joined the group more than a year ago and has traveled in California for the last six months. The choir has recently appeared on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, The Ellen DeGeneres Show and twice on American Idol--singing on the May 23 finale and with Josh Groban on the "Idol Gives Back" special.

Turner also traveled to the children's homes in Uganda and met their families. Out of respect and privacy, the organization does not discuss individual histories of the children.

"Most kids have lost one or both parents (to AIDS or poverty). I saw such unbelievable situations that people are living in."

But you won't see this on the children's faces. "There is so much joy. They don't come across as miserable. They have been through a lot, but they are full of joy and light," observes Turner.

While past choirs have included children from various countries, Turner's group all hails from Uganda. Ranging in age from 6 to 10, the 26 children were chosen by degree of hardship.

"We find kids who stand to benefit from the program. The biggest thing is need. We hear their story and find out where they are coming from. ... We also look at their musical skills and personality. We make sure we have kids who can learn."

Turner says the choir performs a wide range of songs. "From traditional African songs and dances to contemporary favorites to classical, gospel and a few original numbers."

When they are not traveling, the children attend school, rehearse and have playtime. "One of our volunteers is a certified school teacher, while other volunteers assist. We use a Ugandan curriculum so they fit back into the school system when they get back."

In Uganda, the children will remain together at a boarding school. The organization will support their education through college. Past members of the choir have become "doctors, teachers, lawyers, engineers--everything you can think of," explains Turner.

The children are looking forward to adding Arizona to their itinerary. A different group of children visited Tucson in March 2004. Turner finds great pleasure in traveling with the choir.

"It's a great joy to us to experience this through the kids' (eyes). It is such a different perspective. American Idol is not as big a deal as seeing something for the first time like an underpass or microwave. During the first couple of months on the tour, we see a lot of wide eyes. The kids are loving, polite and respectful--just wonderful."

African Children's Choir performs at 7 p.m., Friday, June 1, at Tanque Verde Lutheran Church, 8625 E. Tanque Verde Road. An offering will be taken to support the African Children's Choir's ministries. For more information, visit the Web site.

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