Lifting Spirits with the Gift of Song

by Sara Browning
photography by Bob Hunt

The Morton Civic Chorus raises funds by raising voices on behalf of chronic kidney patients in Central Illinois.

It’s an unlikely weapon that helps win the battle against kidney disease—the soothing balm of voices raised heavenward. When the Morton Women’s Club Chorus lost one of its members to kidney failure, the tragedy gave birth to the chorus’ first Kidney Fund Benefit, held in 1972. The show’s funds were donated to the Heart of Illinois Chapter of the National Kidney Foundation until 1976, when the Central Illinois Memorial Kidney Fund (CIMKF) was formed. Over time, the Women’s Chorus evolved into the Morton Civic Chorus, welcoming men and women to raise money to benefit kidney patients through choreographed songs, costumes and unforgettable performances.

Sparking Interest

Lisa Liddle, chairwoman for the CIMKF fundraising committee, joined the chorus after attending a performance. “I remember getting invited to a show and thinking how wonderful it was,” she says. “I decided that the next year I would join.” She has been involved with the chorus for 17 years and now works to promote its efforts by coordinating publicity events and helping to raise funds for kidney patients.

Denise Adams, director of the Morton Civic Chorus for 24 years, claims that her involvement with the chorus came at a perfect time. “I had just had my son Matthew, and my life had changed radically,” she says. “Directing a chorus production was such a creative outlet for me! I felt like it was a big chance for me to do a lot of different things in a lot of different styles.”

The Morton Civic Chorus sets itself apart from other singing groups by blending theatre with song to create an immense two-hour performance. Adams uses her creativity to oversee props, costume and set design, color schemes, and stage choreography. “The choir has a unique look and sound, which is reflected in the types of songs that I choose,” she says. “I like to keep everything fresh.”

Despite numerous responsibilities, Adams is most passionate about teaching. “Teaching is a huge part of directing because there is so much music and so many rehearsals. I can see the whole performance in my mind from the beginning, and seeing it all come together by the deadline is really, really exciting!”

One Unforgettable Night

This year, 56 members of the Morton Civic Chorus performed 25 songs for its Encore 2008 performance, which takes place in late May of each year. Mexican, Spanish, Italian and French songs flooded the stage, while actors in red berets and scarves danced and swayed to the theme of international patriotism. The night also featured a special performance to the song “With Voices Raised,” which celebrates the heroism of our country’s pioneers in their struggles to bring about reform and a greater equality among the American people.

Adams’ husband, Lee Wenger, and sons Matthew and Christopher Adams-Wenger spiced up the stage with solos, while her daughter, Kaitlin Adams-Wenger, wooed audience members with tap dancing and song. “Music addresses more senses than just hearing,” says Adams. “Music communicates. When singers express themselves through movement, this gets the audience involved.”

Making Ends Meet

The chorus produces phenomenal results for both listeners and participants. According to Adams, up until 2008, the chorus had raised $1.2 million for CIMKF, and they are expecting to raise another $50,000 this year. “Insurance doesn’t always cover all the necessary expenses patients on dialysis have to meet,” she says. “Medication and transportation costs can add up. Our charity raises money to help patients pay their monthly electric bills or buy food. It’s what we do.”

The chorus first began donating funds in 1971. “It’s a different atmosphere when you do something for charity because of the different types of people involved,” says Liddle. “One year, we had a transplant recipient who sang with us. The two women initially responsible for having us donate money to the dialysis patients also work with us. We’re really almost like family.”

A Family Affair

For many chorus members, rehearsals and performances open up ways to spend time with family. “I couldn’t pass up a chance to have my whole family together,” says Adams. In addition to her husband and three children, her mother, Monica, brought enthusiasm and cheer to both chorus members and spectators, attending every performance for 15 years up until her death in 1999. “She was so dedicated,” says Adams. “She would put posters in her car to advertise performances, sell between 200 and 300 tickets, and always sit in the same seat for each show. Shortly after her death, people in the audience would notice she wasn’t there and come up and ask me about her. We all miss having her with us.”

Liddle’s husband and brother have been involved with the chorus for years as well. Her grandfather passed away last year on the Saturday morning before the performance. “It was really hard for me, but I had the strong support of the chorus,” she says. “That’s one of the great things about our group. Members can turn to one another for comfort.” T

The Morton Civic Chorus gives six annual performances at Bradley University’s Hartman Center Theatre each May. The chorus will also perform as guest singers for the Peoria Municipal Band at the Fourth of July celebration on July 3, 2008. This performance takes place at 8pm at the Amphitheatre in Peoria’s Glen Oak Park. The chorus requires no auditions and is open to new members each January. Rehearsals run every Monday night from January to May, in the chorus room of Woodruff High School in Peoria.

Many thanks to the choral participants and audience members who join together each year to fight kidney disease with voices raised! For more information about the Morton Civic Chorus, visit cimkf.org/mcc or call (309) 677-4966. a&s

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