October 7, 2008
Art, Culture Help Homeless Rebound
By Audra D.S. Burch
MIAMI - In the fifth pew from the back of the Coral Gables Congregational Church, Luanne Allgood sits with four homeless men on one side of her, two on the other, and listens to flutist Eugenia Zukerman's interpretation of Mozart's Violin Sonata in F Major. Allgood, who has played the bassoon since she was 11, knows this music, knows its power.
"I believe that art and love heal," Allgood says. "These are men who have every reason to give up. I just hope by surrounding them with beautiful things and trying to change the way they think of their lives, I can make a difference."
These cultural excursions - Allgood arranges free admission and pays for other expenses - are integral to a 16-week enrichment course she founded called Creative Living, even more than the charitable exercise of a well-intentioned woman facing a roomful of hardened men, gutted by drugs and alcohol and mental illness, looking for a second or third chance.
On the theory that first you clean them up, then you make them whole, more and more rehabilitation centers across the country have begun to incorporate fine art and other cultural components into their recovery programs.
"Our members are seeing the value in artistic expression which helps people reconnect to their lives," says Phil Rydman of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions of Kansas City, which represents 300 missions, including the one in Miami. More than a third - including facilities in Seattle, Los Angeles and Atlanta - have launched such programs run by volunteers who believe that the fine arts are as critical as food or faith.
Allgood uses her connections - she has played with chamber ensembles and orchestras in Miami, Atlanta, Cincinnati and Kalamazoo and owns a commercial-production company - to immerse the Miami mission's clients in environments that cultivate their sense of humanity.
Here she comes this Monday night, popping out of a tiny hybrid automobile across from the mission's main building, and walking past the homeless souls on the sidewalks who are waiting for three hots and a cot.
Inside a classroom just across the street, Allgood's students - scarred, like most of the mission's other clients, by combinations of drink, dope and crime - will be able to escape for a couple of hours from their struggles against anger and emptiness.
"The mission does a wonderful job of getting these men back on their feet again," Allgood says. "I work to reset their hearts and reactivate their dreams. These men need someone to believe in them and to help them rediscover their special gifts."
This night, 17 students, including a 21-year-old Miami man hooked on cocaine and alcohol and a Georgia man who has swilled so much cognac that he cannot remember the names of his grandchildren, sit in a semi-circle, singing an old Frank Sinatra standard.
"But he's got high hopes, he's got high hopes," they sing in deep, clumsy bellows and a sweet mix of English and Spanish. "He's got high apple pie in the sky hopes." Allgood's tiny voice floats above their collective bass.
If only for this moment, the men sing as if they believe. And believing - in Allgood, in themselves - is precisely the point.
There's nothing overtly saintly about Luanne Allgood. She simply sees poetry in the broken and understands the power of escaping time and place - if only for an hour of songs and prayers and painting on a Monday night before lights out at the mission, or for two hours of horseshoes and tug of war at a picnic in Matheson Hammock Park.
"It's hard to believe a nice lady like that is willing to spend time with a group of losers like us," whispers Calvin Hartry, the Georgia alcoholic and grandfather of five, snatching at the single tear that streams down the bones and folds of his 58-year-old face. "People normally run from people like us. ... Why would anyone invest in us?"
Almost a year ago, after one of his daughters quit speaking to him and he couldn't afford another bottle of liquor, Hartry showed up at a mission in Atlanta, begging for help. Knowing that he had used up patience and goodwill in that city's shelters and rehabs, the director gave him a one-way ticket to Miami.
"He told me about the Miami Rescue Mission and said they would give me this last shot to get my life together - what's left of it," Hartry says. "After everything I have been through and everything I have learned, seems like the right thing for me to do is go out and preach the gospel of love and kindness, which is all that woman has ever shown us."
The bus, carrying 18 homeless men on a muggy night, moves slowly from the urban corners of Overtown to the reborn midtown patches vibing with hip energy to the well-manicured, old-moneyed elegance of Coral Gables.
The men quietly stare out the windows as one scene blurs into another until Willie Smith, an alcoholic hoping to become a nurse once he leaves the mission, begins to sing "Victory Is Mine," an old spiritual. They sing half a dozen more hymns before the bus pulls up to the Coral Gables Congregational Church.
"You guys look so handsome," Allgood says as the men, some still adjusting their ties, gather outside the church.
"I wanted to look like I belonged," Ronald McMullen, a 47-year- old truck driver, says softly without making eye contact. "I am pretty excited 'cause I have never heard this kind of music before."
As the men file into the pews, Allgood reminds them of concert etiquette, of when - and when not - to applaud. She tells them not to clap between the movements listed in the program but at the end of the composition.
"The music is in parts, like chapters in a book," she says. "You want to be able to hear it with continuity, without clapping. Not making the noise is about creating a pure listening environment and being courteous to your neighbor."
They listen quietly as Zukerman plays Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's "Sonata in A Minor." Even when some members of the more obviously pedigreed audience applaud out of turn, Allgood's students sit silently until the music stops, and Zukerman turns slightly and lifts her gaze.
Then the men applaud. And their teacher beams.
"Luanne taught us all about this classical stuff. She talked about how we should be dressed and what to expect," says Jose Puente, 40, of Hialeah, homeless because he couldn't kick an 18- year cocaine and crack habit. "The event gives you another perspective, lets you know there is a better life out there."
It's better than working small plumbing gigs to earn a paycheck on Friday afternoon and buy drugs by Friday night. "And then start over," Puente says. "You can't see anything else but how you are going to get your next high."
To understand the Luanne Allgood story is to appreciate that she was born bigger than the small Michigan farm town in which she was raised. She grew up on a 40-acre farm in Sturgis, Mich., population 11,000. Her father, a parts manager for the city, died when she was 18; her mother was a secretary. She has known since middle school that music would move her beyond the city's six square miles. There she is, in a telling first-grade photo, grinning - in that I-march- to-a-different-beat expression she still owns - one front tooth missing, messy bangs and a round collar that refuses to conform.
"Luanne has this free spirit about her. If it wasn't fun, she would make it fun," says Gayle Horton, her older sister by two years. "We used to have this three-ring circus on the farm with the other children. It was imaginary, of course, but every year, Luanne was the ringmaster, the one who hosted the show for the parents."
Allgood's childhood was clearly demarcated: B.B. and A.B., before and after the bassoon, an odd choice except for this 11-year-old, so drawn to its distinctive voice and towering 4-foot height.
Mary Noday of Fort Lauderdale, a retired music-appreciation professor at Barry University and Broward College, says the bassoon is such a difficult instrument to learn that, typically, students tackle another one first.
Not Allgood. Practicing for countless hours in a room below her sister's bedroom, she mastered its warm, low-pitched timbre that settles along the bottom of a song.
"My playing the bassoon was a defining moment in my life," she says. "It just seemed to turn something on inside of me. It is a calling."
Allgood played through college at Western Michigan University and while studying for her master's degree at the University of Michigan.
"Effervescent, that is the word to describe Luanne's personality," says Phyllis Rappeport, a retired Western Michigan piano professor. "Even back then, she was making the connection between the aesthetic and community. She didn't know it at the time, but she was preparing for her mission work."
Allgood's first job after college was teaching junior high and high school band and orchestra in Battle Creek, Mich. In her study hall, she took on the unruly students, introducing them to the cello. Before the end of the fall semester, the kids, who came to be called the "Dirty Dozen," had learned to play.
"No one could believe the transformation," Allgood says. "All of a sudden, these kids blossomed. I got to see what happens when we see and make beautiful things."
Allgood, who is divorced, arrived in Miami in 1990 to work for a television commercial-production company. Six years later, she started OohLaLa! Productions, with a client roster that includes McDonald's, Home Depot and State Farm Insurance. She also played with the Miami Symphony Orchestra for six years.
She lives south of downtown in a modern, airy house filled with a mix of contemporary and vintage furnishings and her grandmother's safe, wash basin and teapot. She lives with two cats and a dog and feeds a flock of neighborhood ducks. And she nurtures a homeless woman who lives in a nearby park.
"She talks about the woman like she is family," says Horton, a geriatric nurse consultant in Atlanta. "She sees the goodness in everyone."
During the Christmas holidays in 1996, Allgood volunteered to play music and help distribute toys at Miami Rescue Mission.
"We were talking about how nice it would be if [the homeless men] had the opportunity to go to cultural events," says Ron Brummitt, executive director. "Before you know it, Luanne was back with the Creative Living class idea."
Allgood's students participate in the mission's Alpha curriculum, which focuses on faith-based education and life and job skills.
"Every person here is broken by something. We have to keep peeling the layers back to get to the core issues," says Russell Barbour, director of the mission's centers. "Luanne works on the other side of it to help make them whole."
Allgood plans a half-dozen outings for each new group. Over the years, her students have been to the Lowe Art Museum and the Miami Art Museum and to plays at Florida International University and the University of Miami. They have visited an Overtown studio to paint abstracts with artist Bayunga. They have listened to professors of drama and acting, the trumpeter who played the opening fanfare for ABC's "Monday Night Football," a nutritionist and a professional storyteller.
Still, her commitment isn't always easy.
Some men are not interested in learning or are too bitter to embrace change.
"There's been so much ugliness in their lives, and they need so much," Allgood says. "So, a lot of them come in with their arms folded and staring straight ahead. They don't want to be there. And some never open up."
In the last week of class, the men take a field trip to the Everglades.
At Coopertown's rustic dock and restaurant off Tamiami Trail, they climb aboard two airboats. Half have never been on a boat; only four have ever been to the Everglades; only two have seen a live alligator. Today, they see five.
For every gator sighting, Ron McMullen seems to be transported closer to Charlotte, N.C., which he left when things went bad seven years ago.
"I love this place because it's so peaceful, maybe what heaven is like," McMullen says. "It makes me think of back home. I wish my ex- wife could see this."
He had met his wife at a church dance. She was 12; he was 15. They married as soon as she turned 18. Eventually he strayed, and the marriage fell apart. So did his mind.
"I never forgave myself," he said. "This class makes you stop beating up yourself so much," McMullen says, standing at the Coopertown dock where, he has just decided, he will get married, if he ever finds someone who will accept him.
"Before her, there was so much junk and craziness in my head. Luanne taught me to love myself."
Originally published by McClatchy Newspapers.
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