By Theresa D. McClellan
For the Fort Bend Star
Music Director Mary Butler wrapped her arms around the singer’s shoulders and introduced her as her “prize student.”
With a broad grin, the young woman leaned into the microphone to perform a song that touched hearts.
Roxie is non verbal. But the emotion in her voice and the joy upon her face as she echoed in perfect pitch the melody of “Away In a Manger” playing on the keyboard moved members of the audience to tears. Full of exuberance, Roxie continued clapping and grinning way past the song’s end.
That was the beauty of the 15th annual Texana Christmas Choir program held Friday night at the Asian American Baptist Church. The singers, who are members of the Texana Learning Center in Missouri City, have intellectual and developmental disabilities, but it doesn’t stop them from making a joyful noise and spreading that joy to those listening and watching.
The church, located across the street from the center headquartered at 2715 Cypress Point Drive, provided a place for the singers to perform. And perform they did.
Some singers like Trishequea gave rousing solo performances with the “Star Spangled Banner” and others sang together in small groups. Allen showed his skills mastering the complicated and fun solo, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and he bowed with pride after flawlessly performing “The Angels Sing,” which included the lyric, “how precious is the gift God gave to all mankind.”
The students helped one another adjusting microphones or shushing each other when someone started talking instead of singing. Choir members, seeing proud family in the audience, gave “thumbs up” greetings or shared fist bumps with Kevin Barker, the director of the Texana IDD Provider Services.
This year, with the multiple delays and the director Butler feeling ill, it was questionable if they would have a concert, according to organizers. But Butler said the students would be disappointed. So everyone rallied to make sure it would happen.
“I said, even if I’m not well enough, we’ll have a program,” said the director, who received the Fort Bend County Volunteer of the Year Award in 2010 and this year earned the Arc of Fort Bend’s Special Recognition and Appreciation Award.
Butler, a retired music teacher with the Houston Independent School District, became involved with the group years ago when it was called Arc. A parent asked her if she would help out getting the students to sing and she said she would see what she could do. That was in 2001. Since then Butler said she has seen students blossom with the music giving them confidence and pride.
A former student seated in the audience from the Rosenberg location asked if she could participate. Music is no longer offered in the Rosenberg site, said Butler, and her former student eagerly grabbed the microphone giving a powerful gospel rendition of “Jesus, What a Wonderful Child.”
In another surprise, Butler saw two old friends in the audience and asked them to perform. Professional soprano Barbara Tucker, who has performed internationally, sang then asked the choir to join her as she sang “Amen” bringing the roaming photographer to tears.
The photographer, Dr. Fernando Stein, is a physician and president of the American Academy of Pediatricians. Years ago he delivered one of the students in the choir, he said, and Friday night decided to offer his photography skills to the group.
“I was welling up when they started singing. This is just beautiful,” he said.
The choir creates a sense of community for parents, volunteers and of course the singers. Phyllis Calvin jumped to her feet with heavy applause as she watched her son sing in the choir.
“My son loves this,” she said.
This concert was dedicated to the memory of Lou Larsen, who devoted 45 years volunteering her time and energy to supporting and advocating for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Her husband Tom Larsen said the mayor and a county commissioner stopped in for a brief moment to see the concert before heading to another engagement. The annual Christmas choir was one of her favorite events.
“She was always there to help them if they had a problem, to comfort them if they were sad and always encouraged them to achieve their fullest potential,” he said.