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HASTINGS, Neb. (AP) — Sitting in the chapel under the outstretched arms of Jesus, a choir of angels sang to a woman as she sat quietly.

The woman, who sat in a wheelchair with a blanket over her lap, rarely spoke. Occasionally she would mouth the words of a song, smile or hitch her breath as emotions overtook her.

The woman, whose name is Lois Bayles, stared intently as Tom Michalek led the choir in singing “I Will Guide Thee.” Michalek sang with a smile as he looked kindly to the old woman.

“Do you know ‘Amazing Grace,’ Lois?” Michalek asked. “Can you sing that one with us, Lois?”

“I can try,” she said in a voice that barely audible.

Then the choir of four men and four women began to sing, their voices in perfect harmony as they brought four verses of the classic hymn to life.

The group, known as the Hastings Hospice Choir, came together last fall and for the past few months has been singing to individuals on hospice care in the Hastings area, the Hastings Tribune reported.

It all started after Hastings music teacher Tom Michalek brought in a couple of clinicians last spring who had started a similar choir in their Vermont hometown.

Michalek said the idea intrigued him but he didn’t think much more about it. Then his own father was on hospice care, and Michalek said it all in a different way.

“I got to see and know some of these folks and the care and love they bring to the work they do,” he said of the hospice staff.

Soon, Michalek said, he began to think again about the idea of a hospice choir, and last fall he put out a call to anyone interested and had more than 50 people at the initial meeting.

About a dozen of those people decided to go through the hospice volunteer training. Those go into homes, rest homes and hospital rooms to sing to those on hospice care.

The rest have come together as the Caring Voice Choir. They meet the second Thursday of each month at a different care facility in Hastings to sing for about an hour’s time.

Those who sing in the hospice choir have been trained as official hospice volunteers and are invited by the hospice choir to sing for individuals or families who make the request.

Colleen Vacek, hospice nurse and volunteer trainer with Mary Lanning Healthcare, said she was thrilled when she heard of the plans for the hospice choir.

“We’ve always used music, and when he came and said, ‘We have a choir that wants to sing in person,’ I thought that was just so cool,” Vacek said.

In the past, hospice always would have a CD player in the room softly playing music for people when they would become more restless or agitated in the end stages of their lives.

“I like to play music they’re used to hearing,” Vacek said. “Their hearing is the last thing to go, so music is the most comforting to them at that time. It also calms the family, too.”

Lincoln Elementary music teacher Janice Dart is one of those singers who brings comfort to those in need. For her, it’s somewhat personal.

“My mom had hospice at the end of her life, and I know she would have loved something like this,” Dart said. “My mom always loved music, so when Tom said, ‘I think this would be a really good service here in Hastings,’ I said, ‘I’m in. Let’s do it.’ “

Dart said sitting next to Lois, she could hear the woman’s breath hitch as she was overcome by emotion from the music.

“You could tell she was touched by it,” Dart said. “These folks who are at the end of their life, this gets their mind off of it ,and I think it’s very much a comfort.

“Music is something we hear from the very beginning,” she continued. “Our moms sing to us as babies, and so this brings that full circle. It’s a comfort to them.”

The choir sings a wide variety of religious hymns along with some other familiar songs including “Wonderful World,” ”Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “You Are My Sunshine.”

Dart said that music, religious or secular, always is comforting for people.

“My mom, she was very focused on death, and music just helped Mom to just calm and not be as agitated,” she said. “So I hope that’s what it does for these folks. I hope it’s a calming thing. I hope it brings back good memories.”

Most of the those who have been serenaded by the hospice choir are those who are simply using hospice care services like Lois.

Only one person near death has heard the choir in her final hours.

Michalek said he spoke with the family and that the choir required no refreshments or conversation.

“We just want to bring comfort, and it was really moving to be a part of that family’s journey,” Michalek said. “We ended with ‘Amazing Grace’ and snuck out of the house.”

The situation was much different when the group met Monday night in the chapel at Perkins Pavilion on the Good Samaritan Village campus to sing with Lois.

Group members all sat in a circle with Lois among them as they sang a variety of more somber and more uplifting songs.

“She’s not a horribly responsive woman because of all the medical issues she has, but at times she’ll start to move her lips when she knows the songs,” Michalek said of Lois. “It’s neat to be able to bring comfort like that.”

Choir member Warren Hull agrees.

He has a passion for music and performs as a member of the Chorus of the Plains, a men’s barbershop group based in Hastings, as well as singing at his own church.

Additionally, he remembers the impact his music had on his father in the last days of the man’s life.

“It’s nice to see the joy of people enjoying it,” he said of music. “For someone who is struggling with health, it’s a little break for them to enjoy something.

“There’s something about music. It touches. Even when they can’t speak, you can tell it touches them. It brings joy to people.”

For more information about the Hastings Hospice Choir, contact organizer Tom Michalek at 402-699-2342.


Information from: Hastings Tribune,