The Song Heard 'Round the World: The African Children's Choir Returns to Idaho 

It wouldn't be an overstatement to say that for Tour Leader Janelle Hoekstra, traveling the world with The African Children's Choir has been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

"When I first heard about the choir was actually a while ago. I was only about 10 years old when I saw a concert at my church [in Chatham-Kent, Ontario, Canada], so I was about the age of the children who were performing, and it just really impacted me," Hoekstra told Boise Weekly, speaking from a stop in Hamilton, Montana, where the choir performed before traveling to Idaho. "I thought it was amazing, I thought it was so cool ... As I was growing up I just never forgot that concert."

The memory of a dozen kids her own age singing, dancing and drumming on stage remained in the back of Hoekstra's mind until she graduated from college, when, as she put it, "it kept coming back to mind and coming back to mind." Finally, she looked up the African Children's Choir on Facebook, clicked on an advertisement and applied to be a chaperone. Now on her second tour, she's graduated from chaperone to tour leader.

Criss-crossing the world with The African Children's Choir is no small commitment. The choir's current Just As I Am Tour spanning the western coastal U.S. and Canada lasts nine months, and when BW connected with Hoekstra the group was about a month and a half into its schedule, which includes between two and four performances per week. That's a lot of dedication for a group of 17 eight-, nine- and 10-year-old kids, but they'll see their hard work pay big dividends. After completing a tour, every member of The African Children's Choir receives free education (including college and beyond) through the choir's parent organization, Music for Life. Since its first choir started touring in 1984, MFL has educated more than 52,000 children and touched the lives of thousands more by building orphanages, schools and after-school educational facilities in Uganda and Kenya. All of the choir's singers come from impoverished backgrounds, and their admission to the choir is based on need, not skill.

"The idea behind that is we can teach this program to any child, they all have the potential for that, so the goal is to see who we can impact the most," said Hoekstra. "The motto of The African Children's Choir is 'Helping Africa's most vulnerable children today, so they can help Africa tomorrow.'"

In Uganda, potential singers are identified through local contacts. They attend a music camp where they dance, sing and play games, then those chosen spend six months at a local training academy, where they take classes and prep for touring abroad. On tour, the emphasis on education never wavers. Hoekstra said chaperones pitch in to homeschool the kids as they travel and perform.

"Whatever church we're at, whatever venue we're at, in between concerts we stay there on the days following or the days previous, and we find an empty room with a whiteboard and some desks and we do school," she said.

When the choir comes to Southern Idaho, that venue will be Grace Lutheran Church in Caldwell, where the kids will perform a brand new slate of songs Wednesday, Nov. 21, at 7 p.m. The show—which is free to attend, although donations and sponsorships are appreciated—includes traditional hymns in a mix of English and Swahili, with plenty of drumming keeping the tempo.

While education is always at the heart of the choir's mission, it doesn't always take place in the classroom.

"Along the way we stay with host families, and host families are so generous with giving all sorts of experiences to the kids," Hoekstra said. "So they've loved the different things that they never would have had the opportunity to do before. Some of them have gone horseback riding and they've really enjoyed swimming. They're very much looking forward to snow—they've been praying that it will start snowing soon."

The magic of those new experiences is a sharp contrast to recollections of the villages and slums the children came from, but as Hoekstra sees it, it's all uphill from here.

"While we were in Uganda we got to tour their homes, meet their families and talk to them, just to see where they're coming from and see the difference of how their eyes will be opened to the possibilities that are out there," she said. "... It's just so cool to see that realization grow throughout the tour. To see them realize that they can be whoever they want to be."

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