On a random Sunday in the spring of 2017, Mezzo-soprano Patricia Steiner attended church, as she often does, at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City. That particular morning, an organization called Christ Church Christian Care Center (more commonly known as 5Cees) made a presentation and appealed to the congregation for volunteers to travel to their compound in Johannesburg, South Africa for short-term mission trips.
Pat has been a member of the full-time chorus for 26 years, and it may be no surprise to hear that the rigorous, demanding rehearsal and performance schedule often makes it very difficult to find time to volunteer. For years, she had been interested in giving back on a larger scale, and up until recently, her volunteer experiences had mainly been local, serving Thanksgiving dinners in soup kitchens, and performing recitals in nursing homes. Now she felt a tug to give back on an international level, and was particularly interested in working with children.
The mission of 5cees fit with Pat’s volunteering desires: on its website, 5Cees states it was founded with the goal of “providing hope, help, health, [and] home to hopeless, homeless, hungry, hurting children from previously disadvantaged black communities in South Africa.”
While she had some reservations about traveling to Johannesburg (mainly due to safety concerns), she was inspired by the work of the organization, and was compelled further to make the trip after hearing that her niece was moving to Johannesburg to teach.
After completing the application process, which included a background check, a meet-and-greet with the US-based portion of the 5Cees team, and some fundraising, Pat, joined by 3 other congregants from Redeemer Presbyterian, was on a flight to Johannesburg.
Christ Church Christian Care Center, located in the Hillbrow area of Johannesburg, provides housing, education, medical care, and socialization to children from Johnannesburg and the surrounding townships. Social workers from 5Cees would go out into these underserved communities to identify children in high-risk situations, many of whom were homeless, orphaned or fleeing from abusive families, HIV positive, and living in unimaginable poverty. Currently, 65 children between the ages of 6 and 18 live on the compound, and the organization has plans (with the help of generous donations) to expand that number to 90.
Before departing for her 10-day mission trip over the summer, Pat was warned by the staff that “you can’t make plans, and you can’t be rigid with your schedule or your expectations. You have to be totally open to change.” So she wasn’t surprised when her responsibilities varied on a daily basis. She would often act as one of the chaperones to the kids when they went off-campus for field trips to the Apartheid museum, to the park, and to Johannesburg. “Some of the kids had never been on an elevator or escalator, never used money or bought anything themselves, and had never seen a tall building”, Pat said, and it was amazing to observe the kids’ excitement during trips outside the compound. She even was roped into tutoring the 4th and 5th graders in math and English, which she described as “scary” since she didn’t feel prepared for the task, but “the kids were really bright, and could pick things up well.” Besides these special daily assignments, she spent much of her time playing with the kids in the yard, drawing pictures, doing art projects with them, and even singing in talent shows! (Pat, of course, was begged to participate, since they all knew she was an opera singer and loved hearing her sing.)
Incidentally, Pat’s niece ended up moving to Johannesburg the week AFTER Pat left, but Pat was nonetheless thankful she had made the choice to volunteer with 5Cees, and hopes to continue her work with them in future summers (with the option of staying for longer periods after she retires from the Met Chorus). She loved being involved in the lives of those bright, magnetic kids (“I think I got more out of the experience than they did!”) and was astounded by their strength and indomitable spirits. “We have so many things that we take for granted, and this level of poverty is something we don’t understand. Their happiness with nothing is incredibly humbling.”
For more information, or to donate to 5Cees, please visit http://www.5cees.co.za.
Lianne Coble-Dispensa joined the Metropolitan Opera as a member of the extra chorus in 2010, and went full time in 2015. She is the Editor-in-Chief for the Met Artists Newsletter, and is a member of the Met Chorus Artists executive board. When she's not singing opera or furiously copy editing this month's newsletter, she enjoys spending the lion's share of her free time cooking various delights in the kitchen, reading non-fiction, Crossfitting, and running (you may see her in this year's NYC Half Marathon). She is married to fellow chorister (and ultramarathoner) Scott Dispensa, and they live in Teaneck, NJ with two ostentatiously named cats (Maximilien de Robespierre and Charles Hubert Hastings Parry).