Readers’ donations will send Hyattsville choir to South Africa


Choir director Leona Lowery instructs the choir at Northwestern High School in Prince George’s County. The choir is trying to raise money to perform in South Africa. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Petula Dvorak
Columnist April 8, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, Leona Lowery got a note in the mail that came very close to being a shot through the heart.

It was from one of the directors of the prestigious Ihlombe! South African Choral Festival. The event’s organizers knew Lowery’s choir at Northwestern High School was working very hard to raise the money, the director wrote, but they just couldn’t wait any longer.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

“They were about to drop us. They wrote this long letter telling us they have to pay the bills for the festival and we were holding everything up,” said Lowery, choir director at the Hyattsville school.

Lowery had been dreading that moment, when she’d have to tell her 50 hardworking students that — even though they were the only choir in the entire United States chosen to perform — they just couldn’t afford the trip.

She’d done it with Prague years ago. And Vienna. And London. Her students were so talented and excelled so much that they’d been asked to perform all over the world, but their working-class families just didn’t have that kind of money. And the after-school jobs and fundraising bake sales, fruit sales, concerts and pizza nights they hoped would fund the trip all came up short.

Students from Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Md., prepare to perform at a music festival in South Africa this summer. They have been practicing and fundraising all year but still haven’t reached their target funds. (Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Then, just in time, the money was there: $70,000 worth of cold, hard encouragement.

The day after I wrote a column in March about the choir and their predicament, 250 letters flooded the school booster club’s post office box.

The box was so crammed, in fact, that the booster’s treasurer, the mom of a bass singer, said she had a hard time getting the letters out.

The total that first day was $15,000 in donations, and added to the fund the choir had been building for two years. Even so, it got them just halfway to the $100,000 they needed to get to South Africa.

Two days later, tireless fundraising parent Rumi Matsuyama, whose daughter sings soprano, organized a few parents to head to Mount Rainier’s city hall, to ask the city for a donation.

“Let’s stop at the post office,” suggested Donna Thurston, the bass singer’s mom. The box was empty this time, except for one slip of paper.

“Oh well,” she thought, grabbing the paper and darting back to the car. When she got in, she read the note aloud. “Dear Sir or M’am, Your box has too much mail. Please come to the desk.”

When she returned with the note, a postal clerk shouted out: “It’s that person with all the mail! It’s her! It’s her!” and the entire staff came forth and began applauding.

The post office had baskets and baskets of mail for them.

The staff helped carry the bins, filled with more than 450 letters. The parents waiting in the car saw the parade, heard the applause and everyone began crying, Lowery said.

The postal staff at the Riverdale station had figured out what all the mail was about and took up their own collection, adding it to the top of the pile.

Parent volunteers got together and opened letters until 1 a.m. They read the emotional notes that came with donations that ranged from $5 to $1,200.

I had asked readers to forgo their Starbucks for the day and send the choir that cash instead.

“This is not my Starbucks allowance — it is my this week’s paycheck! I am a retired school secretary walking dogs,” wrote a donor who sent the choir $93 and a handwritten note on Disney stationery. “Go — sing your hearts out — we love you guys!”

They got money and notes from as far away as California and from an alum living across the street from the school. One letter came from South Africa and was stuffed with South African rand.

The grand total last week? $70,300.

Lowery grabbed her phone.

“We sent you the money! We’re coming,” Lowery said to the man from the music festival. “We just sent you the check.”

She is now nagging the kids to get their passports in order and get their gowns hemmed and tuxedos fixed.

“The excitement that fills my chorus room now is priceless,” Lowery said.

When I met the singers earlier in March, almost all of them talked about the trip using the phrase “If we go.”

Joshua Conner, a tenor who is a senior, was one of the “ifs.”

He began working at McDonald’s after school to help save. But he was falling short of the monthly savings goals, plus he hadn’t bought his passport yet.

This week, it’s different.

“It’s very real,” he wrote to me. “ We definitely will be on that plane July 10, 2013!!

“Everyone has that ‘we are going’ mindset and we have more people joining the trip,” he said.

You don’t hear that ‘if’ word around Northwestern High School so much these days.

Now, they say “When we go. When,” Lowery said.

Thank you, readers, for your help making it happen.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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