Spreading holiday cheer and establishing a lasting network of support through music
In the minimum security facility at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility (CCCF), inmates started pouring into the mess hall looking for seats with their friends to watch the third annual Intergenerational Outreach Choir (IOC) and the Oregon Symphony holiday concert at 7 p.m., Dec. 13.
At the front of the room, the 35 incarcerated women of the IOC sat in rows behind the Oregon Symphony Brass Quintet, comprised of trumpeters Jeff Work and Dave Bamonte, hornist Joe Berger, trombonist Dan Cloutier, tubist JáTtik Clark and percussionist Sergio Carreno.
The band warmed up as more inmates trickled in, slowly filling the room with excited chatter. Since the holidays can be an emotionally difficult time for the women who live at CCCF, IOC Creative Director Crystal Akins said that she helped set up the partnership with the Oregon Symphony's Community Engagement program to help bring some holiday cheer to the inmates in the minimum security section of the prison.
For IOC veteran Joana Underhill, joining the choir almost three years ago gave her a welcome escape from the monotonous day-to-day and helped take her mind off being away from her 6-year-old daughter.
"It's really soothing and makes it easier to make it through the days," Underhill said.
Renae Conley, who has only been with the choir for a couple of months, echoed Underhill's thoughts and added that the practice of singing in unity with others has helped build a group of friendship and respect among the women.
"Music is a spiritual thing for me," Conley said. "It's also now become a really good coping skill."
"You are in for such a good show," Monica Hayes, Oregon Symphony education and community programs director said to the audience at the beginning of the concert. "You are a part of the community and we wanted to make sure to bring the spirit of the holidays to you."
The concert started off with the IOC choir singing a variety of Christmas classics, including "Feliz Navidad" and Louis Armstrong's "Zat You Santa Claus?" before the men from the Symphony took over for the middle section of the concert. Playing "Baby It's Cold Outside," "Sleigh Ride," "Silent Night" and a selection from Charlie Brown.
The women swayed to the music and one woman exclaimed to her friends while the band played "Sleigh Ride," "I can just see the sleigh and reindeer!"
The concert was part musical extravaganza and part comedy hour, with members of the quintet answering questions and giving humorous intros between songs and sets.
But the IOC's larger mission stretches beyond women behind bars and giving them a source of fun and connectivity while incarcerated. Akins is working on establishing relationships with conductors throughout the metro area and the country to create SAFE Choirs to help women in the IOC who have paroled re-enter society.
"SAFE Choirs provide a reentry singer an inclusive community," Akins said. "The women from the Coffee Creek Choir have taken responsibility for their actions and, once paroled, desire to repurpose their lives to be a part of community, be of service and to be nurturing mothers."
Akins said that paroled women are often marginalized and excluded by society. SAFE Choirs, a group of choirs in affiliation with IOC on the outside, composed primarily of non-paroled members that will accept paroled women, will look for community members that believe that successful re-entry takes a village of individuals to be there for each other despite their histories or backgrounds.
"It is important that the women feel safe and have an environment where they can tell their whole story," Akins said. "Women in custody have told me that they feel fear of rejection when creating new healthy relationships. SAFE Choirs offer a positive social and emotional outlet for women in transition."
On top of inclusion, Akins hopes that the choirs will also become a place to practice positive behavior where the choir community and the re-entry singers will hold each other accountable for creating safe communities for women and children.
Although still a work in progress, Akins has created strict guidelines for how paroled women will be able to join SAFE Choirs, which involves an application process and one-on-one interview with Akins. Conductors who want to either become a SAFE Choir or create one from scratch also have to apply and receive an endorsement from IOC followed by SAFE Choir training.
"IOC is looking for candidates to become a SAFE Choir," Akins said. "Once we have successfully piloted this model, IOC plans to spread this transitional model throughout the United States because women from CCCF are paroled into other states."
Thus far, only one woman who was a part of the IOC, Lauren Ayers, has paroled and established her life in Hillsboro. For Ayers, her experience has lived up to everything that Akins hoped it would be.
"I think that it's amazing and I think that the women have really come around me and been very accepting of me," Ayres said. "My social life was always the thing that got me in trouble... now (with choir) I have something to do on Monday nights where I get off of work."
Having risen out of a childhood of trauma herself, Akins used music to help her make other choices and believes that music can make "miracles happen." Through her own understanding of the power of music, she said that she is blown away by the ways in which Ayres has recreated herself.
"Lauren repurposed her life through music and service," Akins said. "We've learned so much from her."
Even though the full-scope of the IOC hasn't yet come to fruition, Conley says that what the program has accomplished thus far is already changing lives for the 35 women in Akins' choir at CCCF.
"Crystal is amazing," Conley said. "She comes and spends her personal time to spend with us on her Thursdays. She doesn't have to do that, but she does."