Music is helping to heal students displaced by the fires that raged through Northern California in November. More than 100 students from five schools in the fire-ravaged region are sharing their message of hope through song and dance.
Called Voices Strong United, the choir of more than 100 students has performed in affected communities since December. Half of the performers lost their homes, and all have been affected by the massive dislocation.
"On Nov. 8," recalled retired music teacher Seth Gronseth, "the fire burned our hometown of Paradise and scattered 50,000 people from that ridge all over California and Oregon and Washington."
Several other local communities were also devastated. Gronseth lost his home, as did thousands of his neighbors. He traveled with the choir to Southern California to perform for the National Association of Music Merchants in Anaheim, or NAMM. With more than 100,000 attendees, it's one of the largest music trade shows in the world.
The so-called Camp Fire was one of a several destructive blazes that raged throughout California late last year and was the deadliest in state's history. The fire killed more than 80 people and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses, leaving much of the town of Paradise in ashes.
At the suggestion of a school administrator, Gronseth, who had retired from teaching at Paradise High School, helped create the choir to lift the community's spirits. Their repertoire includes the Broadway show tune You Will Be Found and the inspirational anthem Rise Up, popularized by singer Andra Day.
Choir member Aaron Cagle also lost her home and is thrilled to be involved in the musical project.
It is "awesome," she said, "that I get to be part of this thing that everybody is contributing to," adding that "everyone is pulling together after the fire and helping each other out."
Among the displaced teens was a Brazilian exchange student who was evacuated from Paradise, along with her host family, as the flames approached.
The choir "is a way of reconstructing not only the community, but ourselves, after what happened," said Thais Santana. "It's very, very healing," she added.
This musical performance is important "because it's a way to unite people," said student and choir member Kya Beltran. She didn't lose her home, but many of her neighbors and family members did. The choir allows students to "connect" with each other and their community after "something that's traumatic, something that has destroyed everything," she said.
Student and choir member Sofia DiBenedetto said it is difficult to talk about the future,"but I think people are starting to, not get over it, but the pain is going away a little bit."
The community response to the fire has also been "uplifting," said student Andy Thompson, because people have welcomed displaced neighbors into their homes.
"A lot of companies donated money, giving people gift cards and discounts at their stores, and it's really awesome to see everyone come together," she added.
Public performances like these give the students an opportunity to share their healing music with others, she said.