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University of Iowa News Release


March 11, 2011

Shelter House, UI partner to create new community choir

University of Iowa students, faculty and community volunteers are partnering with residents and staff at the Shelter House in Iowa City to share a mutual love of singing.

Participants of a newly created Shelter House Choir are gathering from 5 to 6 p.m. Fridays now through the end of April as part of a pilot partnership.

“I wanted to start a choir for people who are homeless ever since I came to Iowa,” said Mary Cohen, an assistant professor of music education with a joint appointment in the UI Colleges of Education and Liberal Arts and Sciences. “This choir provides opportunities for all of us to broaden our social relationships.”

The new Shelter House facility at 429 Southgate Ave. has a classroom near the first-floor common area where participants sing together.

Cohen said the choir is unique because participants can vary from week to week. She also believes the choir has the potential to build valuable bridges between different groups of people who otherwise might not have the chance to connect.

“Through my work with the Oakdale Prison Choir, I have learned that bringing two disparate groups together to form one choir is a safe and easy way to build bridges and learn about one another,” she said. “It can give both groups a sense of self-esteem. In my opinion, the Iowa City community has many separate pockets of people who rarely interact. Perhaps this project will prove this opinion incorrect, or even change this opinion.”

Hsin-Yi Cheng, a UI music therapy master’s degree student from Taiwan, is participating in the choir as part of her service-learning project in a community music class.

“My future career goals are to become a music therapist using music to address the needs of individuals of all ages,” Cheng said.

She said she would like to continue as a community music worker, bringing music into communities to increase cohesion among people and enrich their lives.

“This project provides an opportunity to learn how to build rapport with people living at the Shelter House and be more sensitive to their needs,” Cheng said.

William Liu, a counseling psychology professor in the UI College of Education who serves as a liaison to Shelter House, said the UI has an abundance of human resources and expertise.

“Community agencies and services should be collaborating and partnering more often with university colleges and programs,” Liu said. “ Often, these experiences and opportunities allow students to exercise and apply learning from the classroom to real-life situations and people.”

The learning is a two-way experience, Liu said, adding that there are a number of other successful partnerships between the UI and Shelter House including a weekly writing class facilitated by UI graduate students Matthew Gilchrist, Rossina Liu and Meg Jacobs.

“For many students, they often experience the positive and direct impact of their work and efforts on people’s lives,” Liu said. “Students also have the opportunity to revisit their own stereotypes and expectations of people living at Shelter House. Many times, students reevaluate and have to change their preconceptions because of their experiences there.”

The first choir gathering took place March 4, and 18 people participated. For consistency from session to session, Cohen said the choir is using some of the same opening and closing -- or "anchoring" -- songs.

“I wrote the melody to our opening song, a simple version of the ‘Prayer of Love, Peace, and Light,’” Cohen said. For closing songs, she said, the choir sang “I Send My Love” and “Happy Trails.” They also sang “Elijah Rock,” “Old House” (a call and response song), and “Deep Peace.”

Crissy Canganelli, Shelter House executive director, said the experience is an important way to help raise awareness about homelessness and how everyone can make a difference.

“The Shelter Choir and growing partnerships with the UI provide important opportunities to break down a divisive belief system of ‘the other,’” Canganelli said. “It is the false belief that people who are homeless are somehow fundamentally different than me and my family.”

Canganelli said people often define themselves by their work, families, relationships, achievements, talents, joys and sorrows.

“People residing at Shelter House are no different,” Canganelli said. “The Shelter Choir allows people experiencing homelessness to recognize and affirm that homelessness does not define who they are in relationship to other people or this community, but a love of music and song can. We at Shelter House are interested in providing opportunities that bring us together as a community.”

For more information on the Shelter House Choir, contact Cohen at 319-335-3030. For more information on Shelter House, visit

EDITORS NOTE: To arrange an interview with shelter choir participants or to take photos, contact Crissy Canganelli in advance at 319-338-5416, extension 200 or or Lois J. Gray at 319-384-0077 or

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACTS: Crissy Canganelli, Shelter House, 319-338-5416,; Mary Cohen, UI College of Education, 319-335-3030,; Lois J. Gray, University News Services, 319-384-0077,