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Originally founded by Kate Munger, of San Francisco, the first Threshold Choir gathering was held on March 21, 2000. Choirs are now appearing in cities up and down the west coast. In Juneau, we are a group of volunteers who are part of the volunteer network of Hospice and Home Care of Juneau. We sing in people's homes, nursing care facilities, hospital rooms, or wherever someone would like, in groups of three to four.
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The choir sings both secular and sacred music and invites families and caregivers to join in by singing or simply by listening. It chooses songs to respond to musical taste, spiritual direction and physical capacity. The songs may include rounds, chants, lullabies, hymns, spirituals and choral music. Not performers, the choir singers stand alongside the family to help ease a difficult time. The choir invites families to request favorite songs.
The awesome and gentle power of the gift of song was demonstrated during the choir's first visit to a patient's home:
Upon arriving, we talked with her sons, Gary and Irl Stambaugh, who said that their mother, Barbara Stambaugh, had been very restless the night before. Barbara was awake when we went into her room, and greeted us weakly. After we sang "Navajo Prayer she smiled and said it was lovely, and as we continued singing, her breathing became less labored and she eventually drifted off to sleep.
The following evening Barbara's son said his mom had slept very well the night before. She was sleeping when we went into her room. As we sang, her breathing calmed, and she began moving her lips. She had been a church choir member, so perhaps she was singing, or maybe she was talking to loved ones who had come to take her home. We sang as we filed out of her room, and then talked with her son about how the energy seemed somehow different than the night before - there was a greater feeling of presence. We left and her son went back into her room, to find that she had made her crossing, probably as we were leaving the room.
Both Gary and Irl were very grateful for the way it all unfolded. They said that they couldn't have asked for anything better. They said that if anyone doesn't believe in the power of the singing, they will set them straight!
A choir member described another similar experience:
"Three of us felt honored to share in the dying process of a Hospice & Home Care of Juneau client, and the grieving of his wife, as we sang in their home last night. We opened with "Calling All Angels," and then his wife joined in with us, through tears and smiles, as we sang her requests: "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," "Amazing Grace," and "Tell Me Why." She asked us to repeat Amazing Grace, which we sang very slowly. She seemed to wrap the words and comfort of her old favorite around her. Several times while we were singing, the gentleman stopped breathing for quite a while, and then rallied. He was not quite ready to let go, despite assurances from his wife that it was OK; that she would be OK. One choir member's offer to sing the "Lord's Prayer" was gratefully accepted, and she sang it beautifully. We exchanged hugs and hope for a peaceful passing, and left, singing "I Am Sending You Light." The client's wife asked us to give her words to some of the songs so she could sing them to herself."
After singing to another Hospice and Home Care patient, her friend sent us this e-mailed comment:
"The Threshold Choir played this evening in the home of my very special friend. I was there with her at the time and was so impressed with the outpouring of love and comfort their music provided. It was just a few hours later when she passed away. What a tremendous service these wonderful ladies provided for my friend. Please extend my heartfelt thanks to them for their dedication to easing the pain of those who grieve."
New singers are welcome to join the Hospice & Home Care of Juneau Threshold Choir. Call Jean Jasmine at 463-6134.
Jean Jasmine is the coordinator of Bereavement and Volunteer Services at Hospice at Home Care of Juneau.