A little-known summer camp in St. Paul attracts kids from just about every corner of the globe to sing songs from their homelands and from around the world.
This summer, the six-week program, known as Songs of Hope, celebrates its 20th year. That meant a reunion and concert for all the former campers was in order.
Alp Tureci stole the show in a Songs of Hope concert a decade ago, when his young, innocent voice was perfect for a solo. Back then, Tureci's voice reached about an octave higher. Now at 22, with sideburns and facial hair, Tureci struggled to hit his notes while reprising the same solo for the first time at a recent rehearsal.
Tureci, who is from Turkey, isn't a vocal prodigy, and neither are his peers. When they came to Songs of Hope for the first time, they were about 10 to 12 years old. Few had musical training. They showed up in their dorms with suitcases in tow and butterflies in their stomachs.
But they shared bunks and made friends with strangers from countries as far-flung as Madagascar, Guatemala, the Czech Republic, and China.
Tureci said it expanded his worldview, and taught him bits of other cultures, including panda bears:
"That's a phrase I learned in Chinese," he said. "'Xiong mao xihuan chi zhu zi.' It means, 'Pandas like to eat bamboo.'"
A handful of the camp's graduates has gone on to follow careers in the arts. Tureci is now a professional jazz drummer in Istanbul, and his buddy from Guatemala runs a youth dance program in New York.
The Songs of Hope program was founded by two St. Paul residents, Jeanne Junge and Tom Surprenant. Tuition costs $2,600, but some children receive financial aid or are sponsored by other groups. The program was born out of an idea to strengthen relationships with St. Paul's sister cities, said Junge.
"It was going to be a one-time thing," Junge said. "That was going to be our great gift to humanity."
But she said audiences wanted more. The campers now annually perform concerts spread across the Twin Cities and beyond.
FRIENDSHIP, NOT MUSIC, BRINGS CAMPERS BACK
While music is what brings these campers together, friendship is what brings them back.
Harel Perez, 29, of St. Paul's west side, was in Songs of Hope in 1994 and said being on stage as a 12-year-old gave him confidence. It also helped him form tight bonds with the other kids with whom he still keeps in touch.
"And they're everlasting. I went to Costa Rica, and I was treated like a king. I went to Mexico, and I was treated so well," he said. "We're just so well-received after we've made these lifelong friendships."
At rehearsal, these young people don't appear at all self-conscious. Now in their teens and 20s, they stand and sway with their arms draped over their friends' shoulders. And they spontaneously break into song and dance, as if they were on an episode of "Glee."
For several hours a day, they follow the instructions of vocal director Melvin Carter III, a St. Paul city councilman who moonlights for Songs of Hope in the summers.
Carter said when he was skeptical when the program organizers approached him about the job.
"It sounded like something I immediately wanted no part of, because I remember thinking, 'You're looking for somebody to teach a group of kids who speak varying levels of English how to sing -- not only in English, but in languages I don't even know.' That didn't sound like it was possible to work," he said.
But every summer, it does.
The Songs of Hope reunion concert is at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, July 31, at the History Theatre in St. Paul. Go to http://soundsofhope.org for more information.