Chippewa Falls residents Ned and Jill Lenhart want all of their children to find success and happiness.
For their 15-year-old daughter, Thea — a child Ned describes as happy by nature — that joy lies in singing and dancing, especially in show choir like her older sisters.
Her parents knew Thea, who has down syndrome, wouldn’t be able to perform in the conventional show choir at Chippewa Falls High School. So they began looking around for options.
“We discovered in our school district there is no special needs choir, it’s just empty,” Ned Lenhart said. “So we’ve been going, ‘what can we create?’”
Through some research, they brought a special needs show choir camp to the Chippewa Valley for one week this summer, with the help of a La Crosse woman who started a similar camp there. Through those connections and, Lenhart said, a lot of committed volunteers, the camp expanded to plans for a whole show choir, and Hearts in Harmony was born.
In 10 months, the Lenharts’ idea grew from a temporary camp to a full-fledged organization that now has a board of directors, of which Ned Lenhart is the president, a budget and, by the end of the year, will be incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
“It’s just been wonderful the response in terms of folks with gifts and talents who are willing to help out,” Lenhart said. “We’ve got really good people who care about their kids and want to give them this opportunity.”
In January, Hearts in Harmony will kick off its first season as a show choir open to children with special needs from anywhere in the Chippewa Valley.
But those interested can help out before then. Hearts in Harmony is holding its first event as an official organization this weekend to raise funds. Local event space Forage will host “The Breakfast Fairy: Benefit for Special Needs Show Choir” from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at its location in Banbury Place, 930 Galloway St., Building 13, Suite 212.
Using Forage’s recently completed lounge area, members of Hearts in Harmony will sell homemade baked goods they made last Saturday in Forage’s commercial kitchen. Attendees can relax in the lounge and enjoy those goods with coffee, tea or sparkling water. Forage co-owner Kristen Dexter said she will be making such breakfast items as quiche, roasted squash quesadilla and sweet potatoes and bacon.
The featured item, however, will be a special treat: Poppyseed muffins, which Ned Lenhart said Thea made herself. He said his daughter has been baking the muffins since she was a little girl and considers it one of her favorite things — besides singing and dancing.
“She’s a happy person all of the time. It’s not in her DNA to be unhappy,” Lenhart said of his daughter. “She’s excited she can be part of a show choir — we have t-shirts now (for the choir), and she wears hers with great pride.”
Though it’s in its early stages, Lenhart hopes the choir will be a way to bring together kids with special needs and their families. He knows firsthand how important it is to create those connections. He said Thea participates in Special Olympics around four times a year, and many of the kids who have expressed interest in the choir know each other from there.
“One of the challenges when you have a special needs child is social isolation,” he said. “(Hearts in Harmony) brings in kids from multiple school districts and puts them in one place where they have a chance to develop friendship, encourage each other and laugh with each other.”
That idea drew Shauna Eilts on board as soon as she heard about Hearts in Harmony. Eilts teaches adaptive music at Eau Claire North High School and is Hearts in Harmony’s director.
“Everyone needs to feel special and belong, and Hearts in Harmony is a space where everyone belongs,” she said. “I think the excitement in these kids is contagious. They are always willing to do things, and you can tell they’re excited to be there and be part of something.”
She said she plans to have a public performance at least every other year, and said talks are in the works with Pablo Center at the Confluence to hold something there. She also wants to hold smaller performances for the kids’ families and community members, but said it’s too early to nail down specifics.
More than that, though, she hopes to give these kids a space to practice their music skills and use talents they otherwise might not realize they possess.
“I hope this will help them to develop musical skills through dancing and also as a form of expression through music and song,” she said.
She has a feeling anyone who comes to Saturday’s event will leave a little happier.
“The coolest thing is to see the smile on these kids’ faces,” she said. “Anybody who comes in would probably leave smiling because these kids are so filled with joy and heartwarming.”