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Northwestern choir takes trip of a lifetime to South Africa

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Photo by Alexis A. Goring. Northwestern High School student Victoria Okafor, who dreams of being a professional singer when she grows up, directs the Northwestern High School Choir during a performance Aug. 7 in the school cafeteria.

Photo by Alexis A. Goring. Northwestern High School student Victoria Okafor, who dreams of being a professional singer when she grows up, directs the Northwestern High School Choir during a performance Aug. 7 in the school cafeteria.

Published on: Wednesday, August 14, 2013

By Alexis A. Goring

Students, school officials, parents and supporters of Northwestern High School Choir gathered in the Hyattsville school’s cafeteria Aug. 7 to celebrate the only high school choir selected to represent the United States in the Ihlombe! South African Choral Festival this summer.

“It’s fun to be here tonight because it’s such a happy occasion and so many stories in life don’t always have happy endings,” said Johan van Zyl, manager of the choral festival. “This is a lovely story that was carried in the press of South Africa, carried in the press here, and the readers of newspapers here just got together and made it such a Cinderella story.”

Just like Cinderella, the choir needed a fairy godmother to fund its trip.

“We knew we had a really huge task in front of us, and the amount was a little over $200,000 that we would need,” said Donna Thurston, a representative from the Friends of Northwestern Chorus Society of Hyattsville. “So we were doing fundraising activities along the way, and were getting little chunks of money. But, we decided we needed to get some help, and a very nice reporter from the Washington Post came to talk to the kids.”

Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak visited the high school, saw the choir rehearse and heard their stories.

“She came and she interviewed the kids. They all told their stories on how their parents were struggling, working and trying to get the money together to make the trip,” Thurston said. “And on March 22, 2013, we put an article in the Washington Post. From that article came a flood of donations from citizens locally and as far as the West Coast to help get these kids to South Africa.”

Washington Post readers sent in checks ranging in value from $5 to $2,000.

During the Aug. 7 reception in the school cafeteria, Dvorak was presented an award for helping the choir fund its trip. Dvorak said it was “so sweet.”

“I was just doing my job, and they were the ones who were remarkable. (I) just showed up and wrote about the kids. They’re the ones who did it,” Dvorak said. “And these kids’ circumstances — these are the kids that don’t get a lot of attention. People are easy to write them off when they see the statistics of the high school. And, I think that it’s too easy to stop and not realize that there’s some special stuff going on in the high school.”

The choir competed against singers from Canada, Trinidad and Tobago, Australia and South Africa, but van Zyl said the Northwestern students held their own.

“I would really rate them as a top entertaining choir now,” van Zyl said. “The audiences loved them in South Africa.”

Choir member Kandice Travers called the trip “a life-changing experience.”

“I went to South Africa being a typical teenager from the United States, as they call it, and I came back completely different, looking and seeing how fortunate I am and how different things are there, and how much I would love to help when I do go back because I plan on going back,” she said.

Northwestern choir director for 16 years, Leona Lowery, said going to South Africa was nothing short of a miracle.

“I feel like the way things kind of came together, it was obviously meant to be,” she said. “The fact that the director of the festival was saying that the kids were talked about after we left and South African newspapers and TV and radio were still talking about Northwestern’s choir after we left, it’s just obvious, it was meant to happen.”

As the new school year approaches, Lowery will no longer work as the beloved director of the choir. But she will still be at the school as the visual and performing arts coordinator.

Lowery said her students have benefited from their experience in South Africa.

“I know they’ve learned to be grateful for what they have and to not give up on hopes and dreams,” she said.

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