Updated: Jun 24
| This is the 490th story of Our Life Logs |
I was born in 1984 in North Carolina, but we moved around a lot—big, state-to-state moves every two to four years. I think I realized early on that I could either be really bitter about it, or I could gain a lot of really great life skills.
My home life was sort of unsettled in its own way. I’d rather not get into much detail, but I will say I recognize the impact that unstable mental health can have on a family and how devastating it can be.
Early on, I remember wanting to help people. My family grew up in a house that really valued community service. Volunteering was a pretty normal concept to me. We went to churches that constantly emphasized the importance of giving back to the community. I understood that as simply recognizing people’s humanity, giving people a chance, and making a genuine connection with someone who’s had a different life than I’ve experienced.
So, I’m super adaptable. I can uproot when needed. I can walk into any situation and figure out what I need to do and not feel uncomfortable. I can empathize with people who, like those in my family, have illness and need someone to understand their story. From my childhood, I developed a lot of independence and self-sufficiency.
As I grew older, through school, I was able to experience what some of the social needs were in Russia, Ghana, the Dominican Republic, and Costa Rica. Those experiences really impacted me, and they’re what made me want to understand the impact of oppression and discrimination. I learned specifically about the influence of US policy on international development and economic issues around the world. At the time, I felt like all these experiences had to be leading to something bigger.
After I graduated from undergrad in 2006, I started to become familiar with social justice issues. Of course, I was led to social work, because that’s what the job is all about: focusing on how to address inequity in a way that treats people as humans while providing the resources they need in order to develop as their individual selves. And I think I have empathy and a level of understanding that makes it very personal when working with other people, due to my upbringing. I won’t say I know what it’s like to live other people’s lives, but I know what it’s like to have to pack up often and start over again and again.
With social work, you can do so many things and create an impact in a lot of different ways. So, when I saw a new position available at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Social Work, I thought it would be a great fit for me. I wanted to help students find their way in their careers by getting them out of their comfort zones and into the community. By working in academia, I would get to know a huge community of social workers and develop relationships with people all across the state and across all levels of experience.
While I spent many of those early days crafting learning opportunities for others (which was awesome), I did so in the confines of my office at VCU. Now that you know me a little better, it should be no surprise to you that I wanted to be out there helping my community—outside of a school setting.
And wouldn’t you know, opportunity came when I most needed it to.
I had been in conversation with Professor Becky Tyree for a little while about starting a new program. Becky taught music education at the university, but I knew her from all around—she was my partner’s colleague, my son’s voice teacher, and a personal friend of mine. After seeing similar programs develop in other cities, she talked to me about creating a choir for people in the Richmond area who were affected by homelessness—it would be a community where people could come together and sing in a safe space. I remember watching Becky’s face light up when she talked about this. Her heart was always in the right place, and the passion in her explanation made me want to immediately jump on board.
Now, something I failed to mention earlier is that music had always been a huge part of my life. Because we moved around so much, music became a way to share bonds and communicate with people I didn’t know. There wasn’t a specific group or community for me to turn to throughout my childhood and adolescence. I was in bands and choirs all throughout high school, I took flute lessons as well, and I even earned an undergraduate degree in music. So, when Becky brought this idea to me, I was totally intrigued, because it felt like all these different parts of me were able to meet and fit together in the same place. Trust me, it was a great feeling.
Becky went out around Christmastime that year and played for our host church’s lunch program, trying to recruit our first members for “The Street Singers”. For the first rehearsal—I would say—maybe nine or ten people showed up. The next week, it dipped. Empty chairs galore. After that rehearsal, Becky and I looked at each other with big eyes. “Oh no. What’s happening?” Still, there was nothing we could do but come back for another week. And thankfully, people filled the room.
The community was so receptive. Students joined the choir as a service-learning course—which was Becky’s brilliant idea, of course—and we all worked to form those incomparable relationships with each other and actively ensure everyone felt heard. And Becky was a monumental part of that. She has always been such a dynamic person, and she was able to model the environment we wanted to create.
Then, in May of 2018, only a few months after our first rehearsal, Becky died in a tragic bike accident. And with her death, it felt like the whole city was turned on its head.
• • •
Before this news, I had felt like the pieces of my life were coming together. And then…this. I was devastated. I had never dealt with a loss like this before. I mean, sure, I had lost family and friends to illnesses and old age, but never had it come so suddenly and unexpectedly. Never had I relied upon a person who was no longer with me. This was a new kind of grief.
We had just done our end of the year performance with the choir. It was summer break, so we weren’t going to meet for another few months. That meant that many of the choir members wouldn’t have any way to find out what happened. I felt a huge responsibility. I needed to take over and at the same time, grieve. So, immediately, I had to get as many of the members together as I could and tell them myself.
I wasn’t ready. I know I wasn’t. I don’t know how anybody could ever be ready to handle something like that. But the choir needed to go on. So, I got the members together, said the words, watched the reactions, and carried on with a huge lump in my throat.
I wasn’t allowed to not think about it; it was in my face everywhere. I had to continue dealing with the fact that she wasn’t there. But, you know what, I truly began my grieving process by being with the other people who lost her.
Just months after our first rehearsal, the choir suddenly had this enormous loss to deal with, and we did it as a group. I was able to get in contact with a few choir members, and they reached out to others so that they could be part of her memorial service. It was an incredibly painful absence to deal with.
And yet, we kept singing.
In the months that followed, I cleared my schedule as best as I could. I made sure that if people needed to have conversations, we could. We cried during rehearsals often, especially during songs Becky had taught us.
The poignant part of the grieving process was a song we sang called, “I Remember.” Members of the choir could put in things to say about Becky and create their own song, with specific memories about her personality. “I remember her passion and vision for change; her laughter and smiles; memories of a dove, hope, peace, and love.” We each contributed something. And that helped us recognize the relationship and the pain and perform it in public.
• • •
Finally, when it came time for Becky’s memorial service, a mass choir, which consisted of former students, coworkers, and friends, choir members—anyone with whom I could get into contact. Some of them even asked if they could make cards for Becky’s family. We performed again at the school for a concert that was held in Becky’s honor. It was possible to grieve and sing at the same time.
I sang with my choir and remembered Becky’s life. I mean, she was the reason each of us was there. She was so widely respected because she took the voices of every person she worked with and raised them up. She brought people together. And even in her absence, she was doing it again.
There was still a lot of uncertainty about the future of the choir. I didn’t know whether or not we would be able to come back to our regular rehearsals in the fall. The doubt lasted all summer, and I felt the only thing that might solve it would be to bring in another co-leader.
Becky and I had both acknowledged that there were certain needs in the choir for which we could use the help of a music therapist. Becky had been in contact with someone who was new to the area named Robin Rio, so I decided to reach out to her, and then she got in touch with the school. There was a groundswell of people who wanted this to continue, and Robin was one of them. Gratefully, she took it on.
Robin’s music therapy skills became pivotal in helping people to process. There was a lot of attention to emotional needs; if anyone needed to step away from rehearsal, I could go out and talk with them and know that the group was being taken care of. The process of singing was a way for us all to release those emotions in a safe space. Just like it had always been.
That was two years ago. Now, in 2020, we’re still going strong and I’m so grateful. Even with the heartache, there’s much to be gained. I now know how to make new friends, and let old friends go—but never their memories. Those memories stay with us and prepare us for our next song.
This is the story of Cameron Carter and the RVA Street Singers
Cameron Carter is a social worker at Virginia Commonwealth University. In 2017, she decided to found a choir in partnership with Rebecca Tyree, a prominent musical figure and choir professor at the university. Their objective was to create a space for one of Richmond’s most marginalized groups: those who are affected by homelessness. The group, aptly named “The RVA Street Singers,” is made up of community members and student volunteers, and they meet regularly to exchange unconditional love and attention through the unifying power of music. But their path has not been without strife; mere months after the choir’s first meeting, Professor Tyree got into a bike accident and passed away. Cameron was left to deliver the tragic news and help hold this newfound community together- and most importantly of all, keep it growing.
This story first touched our hearts on January 7, 2020.
| Writer: Benjamin Greennagel | Editor: Colleen Walker |