Finding their voices: Music feeds the soul for women facing homelessness

Why We Wrote This

It’s easy to forget that vulnerable populations need more than food and shelter. As musician Kristo Kondakçi demonstrates, music provides respite, confidence, and joy for those in need – food for the soul.  

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Kristo Kondakçi poses at the Church of the Covenant in Boston, where he holds meetups for a choir that gives vulnerable women a voice.

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Kristo Kondakçi is no stranger to the transformative power of music. His extended family was persecuted for its links to Western music in communist-ruled Albania. In 1997, a 5-year-old Kristo and his family immigrated to Boston with little more than the clothes on their backs. Now he coaches chamber musicians at Harvard University and is co-founder and conductor of the Eureka Ensemble, a network of more than 50 musicians with a mission of using music for social change.

The group builds relationships with organizations addressing a range of social issues – from immigration to homelessness – and then performs concerts to draw support. One such partnership resulted in The Women’s Chorus. Through twice-weekly meetups, the choir has become a place where vulnerable women can have a respite from daily anxieties, find their voices, and experience joy.

Jennifer, a chorus regular who lives in a low-income residence, says choir meetups give her a palpable sense of joy. “I’m happier. I’m calmer. I’m not overthinking things as much.” As one shelter manager says, “We are so focused on basic needs all the time that we forget at times to feed the soul.”

Beneath the vaulted ceiling of the Church of the Covenant in Boston, a small group of women is gathered around a baby grand piano. Their coats and, for some, all their personal possessions are laid carefully across the front pews. Although it’s near midday, the glow from the stained glass windows and brass chandeliers barely affords enough light to read the sheet music.

The pianist rolls out the chords for the fourth verse of “Still I Rise,” a rousing gospel song by Rosephanye Powell that was inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem of the same name. The women sing:

Though you see me slump with heartache;

Heart so heavy that it breaks.

Be not deceived I fly on birds' wings.

Someone is singing slightly off-key, but the group remains focused, with flashes of jubilance. They are learning. And in just four weeks, they will be performing. This is a rehearsal, or meetup as it’s called, for The Women’s Chorus at Women’s Lunch Place, a day shelter that works to meet the needs of women who identify as low income or who are facing homelessness.

Several rows back, seated in a cushioned pew, is Kristo Kondakçi, listening intently. He is the co-founder and conductor of the Eureka Ensemble, a network of more than 50 musicians who perform in chamber groups and as an orchestra with a mission of using music as an agent of social change. Along with cellist Alan Toda-Ambaras, Mr. Kondakçi launched the Eureka Ensemble in 2016, and over the past several years the group has performed in public libraries, care facilities, and schools across Massachusetts.

But the purpose is deeper than just connecting audiences to classical works. The Eureka Ensemble builds relationships with organizations addressing a range of social issues – from marginalized immigrants to childhood obesity to homelessness – and then performs concerts to draw support for those organizations. Mr. Kondakçi is a dynamic force behind these relationships.

A direct outcome of his efforts is The Women’s Chorus. Through twice-weekly meetups, the choir has become a place where vulnerable women can have a respite from daily anxieties, find their voices, and experience joy. Since its launch last September, more than 80 women from diverse backgrounds, ranging in ages from 23 to 82, have come to sing.

“That’s one of the things that I’ve always loved about singing, is that you have to literally train your whole self right in order to sing,” Mr. Kondakçi says. “The metaphor is, bringing your voice out. In one sense that’s literally while you’re singing, but in another sense – internally, spiritually – it’s really powerful.” 

A rising young conductor

Mr. Kondakçi, who exudes warmth to all he meets, is considered a rising young conductor in the Boston area. He made his professional conducting debut in 2014 with the Albanian National Orchestra. He coaches chamber music players at Harvard University and works tirelessly as a speaker and adviser to an array of artistic programs. 

Mr. Kondakçi’s drive to unlock the transforming power of music is deeply rooted in his own experience. His extended family had been persecuted for its links to Western music in communist-ruled Albania. In 1997, a 5-year-old Kristo, along with other family members, immigrated to Boston with little more than the clothes on their backs. 

He started his musical training in the preparatory school at the New England Conservatory, and he earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees from NEC.

“Kristo has just a very, very strong social justice aspect to his work, and he has got an enormous capacity to work,” says Tom Novak, provost and dean of the college at NEC, who has known Mr. Kondakçi since 2009 when he was an undergraduate. “He’s a real relationship builder, and that’s a very important skill to have for this kind of an initiative to be successful. He has a vision and a passion, and people respond to that.”

Eureka’s concert last year, “Sheltering Voices,” focused on domestic abuse issues and drew support for local homeless shelters. The connection between domestic violence and women facing homelessness is strong, and it’s a persistent challenge. In Massachusetts, the number of individuals experiencing homelessness has doubled since 1990 to more than 20,000, according to the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, with 50 percent identifying as women. 

Mr. Kondakçi has volunteered at homeless shelters since he was in high school, and he brings a high level of personal attention and commitment to the undertaking – necessary traits if one wants to connect with individuals who are constantly on the move. Last year from January to March he visited shelters across Boston weekly, arriving at 7:30 a.m., to earn the trust of the women and to encourage them to audition for a spot in the chorus for “Sheltering Voices.” 

In addition to supporting women experiencing homelessness, “Sheltering Voices” also sought to highlight female composers. (At least 90 percent of 2019-20 programming for orchestras in the United States is composed by men, according to an analysis by the Institute for Composer Diversity.) 

Performed last May, “Sheltering Voices” premiered a work by Eureka’s composer-in-residence at the time, Stephanie Ann Boyd, with lyrics commissioned from Jessica Lynn Suchon, a women’s rights advocate and poet. “It was a piece that was in essence written for them,” says Mr. Kondakçi of the women experiencing homelessness who sang in the chorus.

The Women’s Chorus in a performance of “Still I Rise”

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A visible transformation

Maritza Rosario, manager of Women’s Lunch Place, says one can see the transformation in the faces of the women who regularly participate in the chorus. One woman, who has been going to the day shelter for four years, has been more joyful since her first meetup.

“I look at all programs that come in through here, and I make sure they meet our philosophy of care, that they meet our mission ... of respect and dignity,” Ms. Rosario says. “When I met with Kristo, in a few minutes I knew that our mission was going to be met every single step.” 

For the singers, the joy they feel was evident at a recent meetup. “I do find that it extends outward.... I take it with me. I’m in a better mood. I’m happier. I’m calmer. I’m not overthinking things as much,” says Jennifer, a chorus regular who lives in a low-income residence and asked that her last name not be used.

When concerts that The Women’s Chorus participates in raise funds for charity, the singers decide where the money is distributed, says David McCue, co-founder and financial manager of the group.

“The nice thing is they get to give; they get to sing and give for a change,” says Mr. McCue, who recounts that one participant once remarked to him that it’s exhausting to have to live on someone else’s kindness. “It’s kind of nice to do something and give back,” he remembers her saying.

Ms. Rosario says she can see the potential for a “ripple effect” if resident choruses are established at other shelters. “We are so focused on basic needs all the time that we forget at times to feed the soul,” she says.

Mr. Kondakçi says he is working toward dispatching volunteers to continue building connections at homeless shelters across Boston. And he hopes that one day, The Women’s Chorus will be its own entity, independent from the Eureka Ensemble. Mr. Kondakçi's assistant conductor, Ismael Sandoval, is already taking the lead in developing the chorus’s artistic content.

“For me personally, it’s like the most perfect execution of our mission, to create a program that then inspires another program to be created – to literally plant a musical seed,” he says. “It is so special to be a part of something so great. It’s incredibly humbling.” 

• For more, visit eurekaensemble.org.

Three other groups with arts opportunities

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects below are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. 

Niños de Guatemala gives an education to underprivileged children as well as families and communities. Take action: Lead an arts or sports workshop for the youths. 

Avanse aims to advance the lives of street children. Take action: Contribute money to a program in Colombia that offers a refuge to children of sex workers where they can participate in art and educational activities. 

Gift of a Helping Hand Charitable Trust provides safe and affordable housing for veterans, domestic violence survivors and their children, and homeless women and their children. Take action: Draw animated characters for a children’s picture book whose sales will benefit this organization. 

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