NEW YORK, DEC. 17 -- It was time to go on, so they climbed onto the garlanded stage and formed two rows, the 5- and 6-year-olds in front, the older ones behind them. Anna Mae West was wearing red and green hair ribbons and shiny gold earrings; William Santiago had put on a white dress shirt and pressed gray slacks. They all wore blue T-shirts that said Victim Services Agency; Anna Mae's came down to her knees.
Eileen Clute, the social worker who teaches them songs and is forever reminding them about singing out loud and clear, tapped on the microphone to be sure it was working. "I'd like to introduce you to a very special and a very sad choir," she told the audience of several hundred kids, guests at a holiday party aboard the USS Intrepid, an aircraft carrier-turned-museum. "Because all the children in our choir have had someone they loved -- a parent, or a brother or a sister -- murdered."
The audience murmured a little; they knew something about suffering. Some were homeless, some handicapped; some lived in welfare hotels; some had AIDS and had arrived by ambulance. Various police and community groups had gathered them for a cheery day of food and gifts, but the organizers thought they had something to learn too from the Children Survivors of Homicide Victims Chorale.
"Even though they've been through this tragedy, they come together ... and they sing," Clute was telling the audience, talking slowly and carefully. "Because singing makes you feel good. Singing makes you feel strong."
Even before this violent year, when the murder toll in New York (as in several other cities) climbed to record levels, passed 2,000 victims and kept on going, there was a choir of the children who were left behind. The three-year-old chorale has 15 to 20 members now, from kindergartners who can't yet read the song lyrics to junior high school students; they meet monthly at the Brooklyn offices of Victim Services. They talk first. Clute usually picks a topic that everyone can discuss -- Being Scared, for instance, or Being Angry or Going to Court. But sitting still and listening is hard, and when the kids start to fidget in their chairs, it's time to sing.
At first they sang for themselves mostly, making an occasional appearance at a memorial candlelight vigil or the agency's Christmas party. But this year the chorale began to make a few more public appearances. The kids sang at Thanksgiving at City Hall, where the mayor listened and everyone told them how terrific they sounded. Today, after a rehearsal at which Clute reminded them about not hiding their faces behind their choir books, they came to the Intrepid.
A few kids had the flu or had to be in school, so that left 10 singers, augmented by two hovering social workers.
There was Norma Santiago, who's 10 and in the fourth grade at PS 159 in Brooklyn. Two years ago her sister, Belinda, who was 16 then, was stabbed to death by an ex-boyfriend who climbed through the window of their apartment and grabbed a kitchen knife. Now her mother, Rosa Hernandez, tells Norma and her 6-year-old brother, William, that they are singing for their sister, that she can hear them.
Norma's favorite of the several songs the chorale has learned is "We'll Remember You," written for the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "Because it says nice things," she explained in an interview a few days ago, and sang in a whispery little voice, "Shining eyes and laughing smile, happy for a little while ..."
Melanie Rosario, who's 13 and in the eighth grade at Our Lady Queen of Angels, wore her plaid school uniform beneath the blue T-shirt. People tell her that she looks like her older sister Annette, who in 1986 went out with friends to celebrate her 17th birthday at the Stardust Ballroom in the Bronx. Annette was found murdered 17 days later. "I was young then," Melanie said, but she remembers Annette: "She was funny; she made me laugh."
Right up front, looking up at Clute for the downbeat, was Anna Mae. She's 6. Her big brother Junior was shot and killed on his way home from work a few years ago; for a long time afterward she had nightmares and couldn't sleep. "I hate singing," she remarked a few days ago, twirling around in a swivel chair at the Victim Services office. "Makes me sad. Makes me think about my brother and I don't want to. But I like to sing."
The kids in first grade call her a banana-head sometimes, but Anna Mae calls them pig-heads right back. This may be an example of what the social workers mean when they talk about the chorale "empowering" its young members.
"It's really part of the treatment now," said Lucy Friedman, executive director of the agency, whose support for homicide survivors ranges from help with burial expenses and court appearances to support groups. "The singing is another way for them to feel community, to feel together. ... It gives voice to feelings that they may have trouble expressing. One of the predominant psychological responses crime victims have is feeling isolated and powerless. Creating a new community breaks down that sense of isolation."
Parents and grandparents think the talking and the singing are valuable too. "Other kids don't really understand," said Audrey West, Anna Mae's mother. "They think she's weird because she had a death in the family. They say she should be over it by now. But how's a kid going to get over that? Here, they're all the same."
They have their sorrow in common. William Spiers, who's 11, comes with his grandmother; his mother was murdered six years ago. Two of the chorale members' fathers are serving jail terms for killing their mothers. The killing goes on -- this past weekend saw a shootout on a Brooklyn street corner, two drug-related murders in Harlem and the slaying of a 42-year-old man who was apparently the 37th person to be killed by a stray bullet in New York this year. Victim Services, busier than it wants to be, is expanding its program into other boroughs. There are lots of children who could, if they wished, join the chorale.
The background tape for their song came over the public address system and Clute raised her arms for the cue. The Children Survivors of Homicide Victims Chorale was singing "True Colors," a plaintive ballad recorded by Cyndi Lauper (and borrowed for Kodak commercials) and Anna Mae's favorite.
It was a little hard to hear the chorale at first, a handful of children in the cavernous belly of an aircraft carrier, singing a quiet verse about taking courage. But when they came to the chorus, they sang right out about not being afraid and Clute smiled encouragingly. Some of the kids in the audience knew the words and sang along. Behind the stage, sitting in folding chairs, the mothers and grandmothers of the murdered applauded and wiped their eyes.