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A choir is born

Submitted by on 1, November 23, 2010 – 12:03 amOne Comment

Roderick Coleman and his young charges rehearse for an upcoming performance. Photo by Diana Ariza Klose.

By Diana Ariza Klose

Lord! I thank you because you are my rock! Rock, rock, rock! rhymes the first chorus line of the gospel rap sung by the recently formed youth chorus at the Alameda Point Collaborative.

The man responsible for the new youth chorus is Roderick Coleman. This Bay Area native, born in West Oakland and now a member of the Alameda Point community, tells me about his life in a few sentences.

“I have been in and out of jails, prisons, battled with addiction, relapsed seventeen months ago, was homeless for about a year and a half, then got my life back in order,” Coleman, 53, said.

I was the sinner, not doing right! I tried drugs, but I was the fool! The lord is my rock!

The youth choir was born of an Aha! moment. Hanging out in the neighborhood he moved into about five months ago, he noticed kids getting into trouble. Thinking it would be a good idea to give back, he decided to volunteer to organize field trips with the kids, taking them to baseball games, Alcatraz, and the park. During one of these park visits, Coleman started DJing and singing gospel songs that he himself writes, and some of the kids began asking about them. And so, the chorus project was born.

I asked if he had been raised listening to gospel, or singing it. “No, this is just a natural gift that I have been neglecting,” he replied with a smile.

He tells me he has “ground rules” for the members of the chorus: Do well in school, do their homework, and mind their parents. And he said his young charges’ parents report they are doing better in school since they started practicing every Wednesday and Friday afternoon.

The choir has also had a positive effect on Coleman, he said.

“It helps me in my recovery to stay clean, to give back to the youth,” Coleman said. “When I see them come up to me and ask questions and have an interest, it motivates me.”

Practice time comes, and a group of teenagers and 4-year-old Zorraya gather around Coleman. He starts singing and directing them with his eyes, his words, and his hand movements. For a self-proclaimed chorus director, he projects an image of total confidence and years of experience. As any typical group of teenagers would, they lose track, and he calmly but strongly calls them on it.

“Pay attention! Stay focused! Listen!” he says, as he keeps singing and leading with vigor and tenderness.

This is one of the last rehearsal sessions before their first public presentation, which will take place at the Albert H. DeWitt Officers Club on Wednesday during the Thanksgiving brunch and celebration organized by, and for, the APC community, which sits on 34 acres at Alameda Point and provides services to homeless families and individuals in order to foster the support and interaction needed to end homelessness. (Coleman lives in Operation Dignity housing, which shelters veterans and is one of the three outfits on the Point.)

After 45 minutes or so, the attention fades, and it is time to share some food. They sit around the table and cut a cake, and I take the opportunity to talk to some of the youngsters. Lola, 11, tells me she looks forward to practice days, because it “gives her something to do besides playing in the computer.” Robert, 14 years old and the only boy, tells me he has a great time with Coleman, and that they are planning to go fishing, which he’s really looking forward to.

Coleman said he is now working on a proposal for a continuing program of activities with the youth. He has, so far, been using his own resources for the development of these activities, but tells me he would welcome any funds that may be raised by the larger Alameda community.

He tells me his story with enthusiastic energy, and I can feel his newfound pride in helping himself by way of helping others.

“I seized the moment. I saw that motivation and I grabbed it, and ever since then I never looked back,” he said.

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