By Marilyn Hubbard
If you were to ask a Womansong member why she comes to rehearsals every week, attends extra rehearsals before a concert and spends more hours at home memorizing the songs, she could give many reasons. She loves to sing. She enjoys the community of singers around her who have become her caring friends, her support network, the ones with whom she can share her joys and her sorrows. Most, likely all, of the members would also add that they sing because they are helping other women lift themselves up and make new beginnings through Womansong’s New Start Program.
In 1987 Annelinde (Linda) Metzner moved to Asheville from Columbia, SC, and joined a meditation group that met periodically at the home of a UNCA professor. One night, after the meditation, Linda announced that she was thinking of starting a woman’s chorus and asked if there was anyone who might be interested. Soon afterwards a small group of women met weekly in Linda’s home. Then in 1988 the number was large enough that they moved their rehearsals to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville. Their first performance was on December 31,1987, at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium as part of an all-night vigil for peace and harmony in the world. They also sang at such places as Bele Chere, McDibb’s, and Stone Soup.
Linda served as the director of Womansong for seven years until she “retired.” Today, at the 25th anniversary of the group, eight women from those first seven years are still singing with Womansong. The chorus now numbers around 75 members and sings under the direction of Debbie Nordeen, who has been the director since 1994. From time to time Linda joins the group for special events. At the upcoming 25th Anniversary Concert at the Diana Wortham Theatre on November 10th and 11th the Reunion Choir, composed of current and former members, will sing a medley of her songs.
Linda and her group of singers began donating money from their concerts to places such as Hospitality House which was opening a shelter for homeless women. While in the Catskills on her annual vacation at the family farm, Linda had what she describes as a “thrilling spiritual inspiration” that brought her the idea and name, New Start Fund. The NSF would be Womansong’s own fund and would benefit individual local women, thus making a strong one-to-one connection: “I especially wanted spiritually to encourage the idea that everyone has the right to a new start, wherever they are in their lives. I wonder if being at my family farm, full of memories of immigrants who came to America out of starvation to start life anew, helped me to envision the idea of the unending ‘New Start’? I went back to the next Womansong rehearsal and proposed this to the group, who wholeheartedly approved the idea.” When Debbie Nordeen became director, she and the chorus members happily continued the New Start Fund.
In recent years, as Womansong expanded and as there was more money available to fund scholarships as well as individual grants, the name was changed to New Start Program. The funding comes from Womansong and donations from fans. 100% of each contribution to the New Start Program goes directly to women in need with no overhead or administrative costs. All contributions to the new start program are tax-deductible to the full extent allowable under the 501(c)(3) tax designation. Currently eight Womansong members serve on the New Start Program Committee including co-chair, Susie St. Clair, who has been singing with Womansong and involved in the New Start Program almost from the beginning. The committee members must agree to read their e-mails frequently so that emergency grants can be awarded immediately when necessary.
Various grants are given, up to $500 as needed. These grants have included such things as a bus ticket out of town, car insurance, new tires, help in purchasing a car so that the woman could go to work, rental deposit, back rent, a debt to a community college so that the student could re-enroll, overdue cell phone bill, gas bill, a uniform and exam fee for a woman to begin a new job, swimsuits for exercise, clothes needed for a job, and brake repair on a car. Recipients are referred to Womansong by social service agencies.
In 2009 the New Start Program extended its scope to include scholarships with A-B Tech and later also with Haywood Community College. To date, over $13,000 in scholarships have been granted. Examples of curriculum in which scholarship recipients have enrolled include automotive repair, ophthalmology assistant, medical records, business administration, massage therapy, certified nursing assistant and sonography. Katonya Owens, a New Start Recipient in 2010 enrolled in the Automotive Systems Technology and Heavy Equipment Transportation programs at A-B Tech, wrote: “I became interested in automotive work as a child while helping my father around our home. I will use this education to go to work after completing my studies. I cannot fully express the gratitude I feel receiving the scholarship. My husband’s disability does not allow him to work outside our home. This Associate degree will offer a more stable financial future for my family. Thank you so very much.” Katonya hopes to open her own automotive/heavy equipment services center.
In 2010 the chorus learned that women wanting to enroll in the health care professions were required to have expensive immunizations. Receiving grants to pay for these immunizations has allowed women to enroll in these programs. At this time, more than $2,300 has been granted.
Womansong receives many lengthy letters of appreciation from women who acknowledge that without this support they would not have been able to escape an abusive situation, would have lost their home or apartment, or would not have been able to rise above a personal hardship to get back on their feet to support themselves and their families. A Helpmate Shelter Manager wrote, “Your generosity and willingness to help out means a great deal to us and even more to Helpmate’s clients. It’s comforting to know you are there.” A Madison Helpmate staff member wrote, “Having this car insurance paid enables her to transport her kids to school, and has allowed her to start a new job. Perhaps most importantly it allows her a safe way to leave her house if she is attacked. Thanks again for taking down another obstacle.” Helpmate program director, Deb Vingle, said that she has worked with the New Start Program for many years beginning when Linda Metzner was the director. She stated that she doesn’t know what they would do without this source of funds for special needs beyond the purview of the agency: “It has been a godsend to us, an incredible resource over time.”
Linda recently received recognition from Deb Scott of Community Action Opportunities thanking her for starting the New Start Fund almost 25 years ago. She wrote: “You are a Mountain Mover! Thanks to your compassion, this whole network of women is moving ahead. I had a quick what if flash—gathering up all the women over the years who have benefitted from the fund, and have them sing just one little song together. It would be a very big chorus.”
We, the members of Womansong, do know why we sing and for whom.
Linda wrote a poem which conveys the ideas behind the New Start Program.
The New Start
At first it looks like a dead end, a wall,
this life you’ve got,
meanness, hunger, fear.
Babies crying. Bills mounting.
Some coiled fist menacing in some corner.
How we know this, how all women know this!
And yet, a blessing. We sing!
We sing together as women.
We sing for the world, and for each other,
and with our song we lift you too.
Fifty or a hundred dollars
to pay the light bill, or the tuition bill,
or maybe just to get the hell out of here
to some better place in your dreams.
We have all been there, and with our song
we raise you, we reach out to you,
woman to woman, a firm, strong hand,
knowing you can envision this, a life beyond these walls.
It is not a dead end. There’s more life still,
for you, for your babies. Woman-to-woman,
we lift you with our song,
to the next day, the next step,
the first glimmer, the new start,
shining, glinting golden under our feet.
For more information about a Womansong New Start grant, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.womansong.org and click on New Start Program. Information about the 25th Anniversary concert can be obtained from the above web site.
Marilyn Hubbard has sung with Womansong for the past 10 years. When she tells someone about Womansong (which is most everyone she meets) she tells them about the New Start Program. At rehearsals and concerts she remembers for whom she sings. Marilyn has lived in Swannanoa for 16 years and is a former international educator. She thanks Linda Metzner, Nita Walker, Susie St. Clair, and Roberta Newman for help with this article.