Members of the D.C. Boys Choir, led by director and founder Eleanor Stewart, perform at Howard University's Dunbarton Chapel. The choir is trying to raise $165,000 for a trip to Italy. (Photo by Michael Cabrera)
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The D.C. Boys Choir has been invited to participate in Mass at both St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City and St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice next month. Special opportunities like these usually come with a price tag, however. In this case, the choir needs $165,000 the make the trip.

That’s a lot of money. And it’s always heartbreaking when our local choirs, orchestras and other youth groups work hard to be afforded such opportunities — then can’t afford to take advantage of them.

“It doesn’t come free, and that’s the challenge,” said Eleanor Stewart, who is founder and director of the D.C. Boys Choir.

I have an affinity for the choir. Stewart, a former music teacher for D.C. Public Schools, started the group in 1993. At the time, youngsters were being killed by the scores in the District and the choir was her way of getting some of them off the streets.

She retired from the D.C. school system in 2000. But, despite a steep drop in funding that ensued, she kept the choir going. The current group has
30 members, ages 8 to 16. It is a racially integrated group made up of boys mostly from the District but also from Maryland and Virginia.

During the past 22 years, she has taught more than 700 boys how to sing and read music. They sing arias, jazz and gospel — in Italian, Spanish, Latin and a South African tribal dialect. They also use sign language for the hearing impaired.

“Don’t tell me that our boys can’t learn,” said Stewart, who is black.

The D.C. Boys Choir partners with the choir at Morehouse College, a historically black school for men that is located in Atlanta. Each year they rehearse and perform together.

“They get to talk about college, what they need to do to get into college,” Stewart said. Many of her boys do go on to college and some have stayed with music. She counts among her former choir boys a music conductor, a songwriter and one who performed in the Broadway play “Motown.”

To sing as a group, the boys must respect one another. Stewart makes sure they do so by first learning self-respect. They must take care of their bodies: eat properly, exercise regularly and get a good night’s sleep.

“No staying up all night texting,” Stewart said.

The discipline, rigorous study and exemplary behavior invariably pay off.

After the choir returned in 2001 from England, where it performed in the Canterbury International Children’s Choir Festival, I e-mailed festival manager Michael R. Peterson to see how it went.

“The Washington, D.C., community can be very proud of these boys and the work of Ms. Stewart,” he wrote back. “To say that the D.C. Boys Choir ‘stole the hearts’ of the audience would be an understatement. Everyone in the audience was visibly moved by the passion and energy these boys bring to their music-making. It was a shining moment that I will never forget.”

Seeing the boys stroll along the streets of London singing Bach’s “Bist du bei Mir” can have that effect, he said.

Since the recession, however, raising money for trips has become more difficult. Choir members have had to sell dinners and hold car washes to raise money. Mostly they perform, sometimes singing so often that they risk their voices.

“If we have to sing for our supper, we will sing,” she said.

Fortunately, the Washington area remains one of the wealthiest in the nation and many residents have hearts as big as their bank accounts.

Joseph Coleman, former lead singer with the doo-wop group, the Platters, recently held a fundraiser for the choir. He netted $15,000 for the group.

One of the choir’s most consistent supporters, Asbury United Methodist Church in Northwest Washington, helped purchase new blazers for the boys and donated $11,000.

Those donations, coupled with what the choir had already raised, has given them $90,000 toward their trip. But with just three weeks to come up with an additional $75,000, the boys could use a few more generous benefactors.

“I just feel they represent the best of what we have to offer and they deserve to be in the spotlight,” Coleman said. “When youngsters are doing all the right things, and you know it’s hard, then we need to let them know that we are proud of them.”

Anyone interested in helping the choir travel to Italy can make contributions through www.gofundme.com/dcboyschoir . Donations can also be mailed to D.C. Boys Choir, P.O. Box 60546, Washington, D.C.

This column has been updated.