YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Choir Members Take Their Name to Heart

The New Directions singing group is made up of once-homeless war veterans who are turning their lives around.

January 03, 2006|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

The New Directions Choir is a testament to the power of song.

The group's 10 members are all formerly homeless war veterans who have reclaimed lives that were subservient to drugs, alcohol, crime and the despair of Los Angeles' roughest streets.

With arresting harmonies, a repertoire of old-school soul and gospel, and a winning stage presence, the singers are making a name for themselves musically and proving there can be new beginnings for people given up as lost causes.

The first incarnation of the a cappella group formed seven years ago at New Directions, a private, nonprofit residential substance abuse treatment program for homeless veterans at the Veterans Affairs campus in West Los Angeles.

Members are chosen through auditions. Some have limited musical backgrounds, many are still in recovery programs, and others have mended their lives and take time from work and families to share their love of music and message of hope.

"It's a very therapeutic thing for us," said George Hill, 47, music director and the founding member of the group. "A lot of people find themselves going back to addiction, but the majority of our choir members remain clean. We go places where people are down, like we were. We wind up helping them, and they also help us."

Sharon Frochen, the choir's manager and first female member, said the performances offer a bittersweet perspective on her years of homelessness.

"You sometimes get to go back as a performer to some place like Union Station, where you were once homeless and that had you in bondage," she said.

Frochen, 31, joined New Directions three years ago after becoming hooked on methamphetamine. She said she had come out of the Air Force and established a successful real estate appraisal firm but began using speed to keep up with the pace of work.

She fell hard, she said, eventually robbing her grandmother of a valuable Native American memorabilia collection. She was given the choice of a five-year prison term or treatment.

The choir members are now like family, said Frochen, who was hired as a grant writer for New Directions and books engagements for the choir.

The winter holidays mark the start of the choir's busiest period, with 30 to 60 performances anticipated in 2006, marking New Year's, Black History Month, Christmas, Kwanzaa and other celebrations. The group frequently performs at community events and benefits, such as an upcoming fundraising dinner sponsored by the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness.

The choir has performed at the Democratic National Convention, for former Gov. Gray Davis and for Tipper Gore, wife of former Vice President Al Gore. Now, it is trying to move to a new level of professionalism with plans for a recording.

"We want it to be a platform for anyone in the future with talent and have it so that it's a well-oiled machine," said Hill, a former Marine who fell into addiction, did prison time and was homeless for 12 years in the MacArthur Park area and on downtown's skid row.

Hill said he vividly remembers his turning point. He was sitting on the corner of 5th and Spring streets when a man pushing a shopping cart walked by, rags on his feet and so dirty that his features were barely recognizable. He walked up to Hill, pulled a dollar from his pocket and said, "Here man, I feel sorry for you."

"I thought to myself: 'You feel sorry for me?' I knew then it was time to go," said Hill, who has since married, lives in Eagle Rock and attends Cal State Los Angeles while working as a computer technician.

Recently, the choir huddled outside the auditorium at St. Anne's, a social agency for pregnant and parenting teens on Occidental Boulevard west of downtown, where a mental health group was holding its holiday party.

Hill and other members went over some arrangements and were told they would have only two microphones instead of the four they had expected.

When the choir was introduced, there was polite applause and much chattering, as revelers continued to enjoy their dinners. But at the start of the choir's gospel-tinged theme song, "We Are Made as One," written by Hill, the crowd began to pay attention. When singers launched into the old soul classic "Ain't No Stopping Us Now," the crowd of several hundred swayed and clapped to the beat.

"They're great and I enjoy the harmony," said Theodora Johnson Blueford, who was attending the event. "And it's good to see people who have been down, up and making it in life and starting to contribute to the community."

Several people in the audience were especially taken with the bass singing of Carleton Griffin, 54, a Navy veteran who said he gained his deep, rich timbre while shouting commands next to the guns of a guided missile destroyer.

Griffin served three tours of duty in Vietnam and was homeless for 25 years, mostly in South-Central Los Angeles. Since joining New Directions in 2000, he has become a case manager, is working on a degree in human resources and was reunited with a daughter he hadn't seen in 18 years.

"It's a good group of individuals," Griffin said, "and they've helped me to stay focused on the things I needed to stay focused on."

Los Angeles Times Articles