Voices of comfort

One-of-a-kind community choir a wellspring of support for breast cancer survivors

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By MELISSA SURAN

Web Extra! Video of the choir.
If you happen to pass Pilgrim Congregational Church in Oak Park on a Thursday evening and hear choir music, what you're hearing probably isn't the church chorus.

The community group practicing there most Thursdays performs only a few times a year, in fact. For members of Sing to Live, it's the practices - the supportive connections - toward each performance that are centerstage.

This is a choir dedicated to helping heal the spirits of those touched by breast cancer. Members of Sing to Live are survivors of breast cancer, and people who know breast cancer patients or who have survived breast cancer victims.

The choir was founded five years ago by Melinda Pollack-Harris when she found out she had breast cancer.

"As my journey as a breast cancer patient began, I sought out support groups," she said. "Having been a singer for most of my life, I was looking for something musical."

She says she found no support group that featured music as a way to deal with the pains and fears of cancer. So Pollack-Harris, 52, decided to start her own in the form of a choir.

In November 2005, Sing to Live had its first concert: 36 people in the choir, an astounding 300 people in the audience. Now, the choir is up to 80 singers.

"The stars were aligned from the beginning of the idea," Pollack-Harris says. "Everything fell into place and continues to."

Anyone can try out for the choir and there are no auditions. Pollack-Harris invites everyone with a concern about breast cancer to join when there are openings, although priority is given to survivors and those with immediate family members who have suffered from breast cancer.

"We welcome both men and women who have a passion ... for our mission," Pollack-Harris says.

Wilbert O. Watkins, artistic director and conductor for the choir since its inception, says being in Sing to Live is a rare opportunity. His twin sister has been cancer-free for almost a decade. "This is the first chorus I had ever heard of that was uniquely involved with breast cancer awareness and being a support group through music."

Even the choir's accompanist, Joan Hutchinson, has a double connection in her family alone. Her grandmother suffered from breast cancer and her mother is an 18-year survivor. Shortly after she joined the choir, breast cancer was diagnosed in one of her close friends.


"Getting her to come sing, and singing by her all these years, has been great fun," says Hutchinson, who started out with the group as an alto.

According to Hutchinson, Sing to Live tunes are eclectic, ranging from classical pieces to showtunes, a cappella and even Beatles hits. No matter what the song, she says, everyone in the chorus loves the singing.

Although most member of the choir are women, Sing to Live does have its fair share of men - about one for every three women.

Jim Rostenberg, an Oak Parker of 27 years, has been a member of the choir since its third concert. Rostenberg said he loves every minute of taking part in Sing to Live. In fact, he said, he was taken aback the first time he sang in rehearsal.

"I was blown away by the quality of the group I had just joined," says Rostenberg.

Rostenberg is no stranger to breast cancer. His 91-year-old mother is a 25-year survivor. His aunt, who is in her 80s, is a 12-year survivor. One of his dear friends is a five-year survivor; yet another close friend got the news this year.

"There are many lump-in-throat moments," Rostenberg says. "It's difficult to sing many of these pieces without getting choked up."

A veteran of many choirs over the years, Rostenberg says he has never seen a community chorus so diverse: singers range in age from early 20s to late 70s.

And the vocal range is as diverse of the age range.

Toni Balthazor said the last time she participated in a choir, it was an extracurricular school activity.

"I hadn't sung since high school, I didn't know I could sing," she said. "Melinda gave me the opportunity to sing again and grow."

A seven-year survivor, Balthazor says music was the best cancer treatment.

"I did support groups, yoga and tai chi but there wasn't anything to actually celebrate [surviving] and that's what the music allows me to do," Balthazor says.

Robin Akers, a five-year survivor, was frightened the first time she sang with the choir.

"I was terrified the first time I got on stage. I thought I was going to pass out, but I made it," she said. "I sing among people who are so talented and have really, really helped me to grow musically and to also overcome the fear of bring in front of an audience."

Akers, 51, a Forest Park resident of 25 years, said being in the choir not only helps her heal, but gives her a sense of community.

"It's so comforting to be among people who don't' judge you for your talent and music but are always there to support you."

And if it weren't for community plugs, Akers said she may never even have known of Sing to Live.

"I saw it in the paper and thought this is something that's way out of my safe zone ... so I decided I would try it," said Akers, who recalls reading about Sing to Live in Wednesday Journal.

Practices are in Oak Park, but the choir draws singers from Chicago to Joliet. Pollack-Harris says her next goal is to expand the choir's gift of support to other communities - and, she hopes, to make her musical family a national one.

"Everyone is very much aware of the support element within the choir so there's a deep sense of family which makes us a little more unique than the average choir," Watkins said.

Sing to Live is starting its fifth season, with two concerts this month, a time nationwide for breast cancer awareness. On Saturday, Oct. 24, the choir will have an evening show in Evanston. On Sunday, Oct. 25, Sing to Live will have an afternoon show in Oak Park. Tickets to shows and Sing to Live CDs are complimentary to breast cancer survivors.

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