By Brendan Hickey
The members of the Harmony, Hope, & Healing choir all have something in common: They struggle with drug addiction and homelessness, they are enrolled or have completed a 12-step recovery program, and they all know Tina Villapando.
Kevin Tamila abused drugs for much of his life. After joining Harmony, Hope & Healing and completing his addiction recovery program 10 months ago, he continues to sing with the group.
“I can show the newcomers that [recovery] is possible,” Tamila said. “Staying with the group shows me and them that healing is a long process and I look forward to it.”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve had someone to love me,” said Debra Taylor, a member who has struggled with addiction, holds back tears. “Now when I sing, I’m singing Christ’s words. There isn’t anybody who can love you as much as He does. And that’s how I started to love myself again.
Harmony, Hope, & Healing is a nonprofit organization with the mission to help Chicagoans experiencing drug addiction and homelessness enter a sober, productive and meaningful life through the power of music. Villapando is one of two full-time employees that assists these Chicagoans in recovery.
The organization is most publicly known as a choir. The strict recovery and sobriety requirements lead to regular fluctuation in the choir’s size. Remarkably, it is not uncommon for failed singers to return for second and third attempts at the program.
“Even though we have all these performances, it’s not about that,” Villapando said. “It’s finding your voice when it’s been silenced in so many ways – whether it be by yourself, whether it be by others, whether it be by your circumstances.”
Villapando calls the choir as “the public face of Harmony, Hope & Healing,” because a large part of the nonprofit’s work happens behind closed doors. She has spent the majority of her tenure with the program helping women rediscover how to interact with their children after experiencing long periods of a drug-addicted lifestyle.
“Seeing parents reunite with their children and learning those parenting skills again sometimes is tough work and is sometimes a challenge,” Villapando said. “But when you get that moment when there’s bonding, it’s beautiful, and it’s through music and it’s through singing and using their voice in a positive way and you see them being with each other— those are beautiful moments.”
The program was founded by Marge Nykaza in 2000 and operated on a small scale until it was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2003. Nykaza was diagnosed with cancer shortly after employing Villapando as an intern, and left the organization largely in her control as she healed.
Nykaza remembers this period as a critical point for Harmony, Hope and Healing. “While I’m having all of these health issues and going forward with surgery, and chemo and radiation, she assisted me so that the work could continue. While personally it was one of my most difficult times, it was a great year for our program. She’s a blessing,” she said.
Villapando has now been with Harmony, Hope & Healing for five years and loves her new promotion and title: program director. She says she feel blessed to be part of the organization and that she learns from the people in the program every day. The choir members recognize how the organization has helped them, too.
“I am Harmony, Hope & Healing, and so are you,” said Amanda Brown Longe Asque, a singer with the program. “We are Harmony, Hope & Healing, and so is Tina Villapando.”
Photo at top: Harmony, Hope and Healing Choir rehearses before Sunday Mass at St. Josaphat Catholic Church in Lincoln Park. (Brendan Hickey/MEDILL)