In 1981, The Christian Berets formed a choir. Church groups tend to do that, you know, to help congregations navigate the hymns and the liturgies.
They called this one the Joy Sounds Choir, and more than three decades later, no one gets more joy from it than its participants.
Each one of them – 30 strong – is disabled. Some are developmentally disabled, including Down syndrome. Some are blind. Others have physical disabilities and need wheelchairs to get around. Some have cerebral palsy.
They sing somewhere at least once a month, most recently at Big Valley Grace Community Church two weeks ago, and a smaller group of them sang carols at a Modesto nursing home one night last week. They also perform periodically at Parkview Christian Estates. They practice twice monthly at the Modesto Free Methodist Church. They’ve traveled for shows in Southern California and Arizona, as well. Do the math over 34 years and it pencils out to more than 400 shows.
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Most important, member Chris Hansen said, they sing together.
“That, and the common bond we have in Jesus Christ,” said Hansen, who joined two years ago at the invitation of Brice and Sandy Ringsby, the choir directors. “Most rewarding is the sweet friendship of the members of the choir and those who direct the choir, and the love for each other.”
Hansen has written some original songs and done arrangements for others.
The Christian Berets came into being in 1970 as a nondenominational nonprofit to minister to people with special needs. Among other things, it offers summer camp experiences in the Sierra for special-needs children and teens. The group opened its first camp in Long Barn in 1973, but later upgraded to its current camp in Mi-Wuk Village in 1985.
In fact, most who have heard about the Christian Berets think of the organization primarily because of the summer camp. Rochelle Van Horn-Quadros, the organization’s executive director, wants that to change. She said the choir is its greatest ambassador and wants the group to be more publicly visible year-round.
While the camp is primarily for children and teens, the choir is entirely adult. The singers range in age from their 20s to 70s.
“The helpers are typically abled adults,” Sandy Ringsby said.
Hansen and his wife, Debbie, attended a wedding two years ago. The Ringsbys invited them to visit the summer camp. Soon, they were involved in the organization and then the choir. Hansen became blind shortly after birth.
“I was a preemie,” he said. “I OD’d on oxygen because (doctors) wanted to help me breathe.” The extra oxygen, he said, caused his blindness.
Likewise, wife Debbie had vision problems, but a recent surgery has improved her eyesight.
Karen Thomas joined the group three years ago.
“I have cerebral palsy,” Thomas said. “I was told by the state to stay home and be a couch potato. But I’ve got over 10,000 volunteer hours for the county,” mostly at the medical facility on Scenic Drive.
Thomas was recruited to the Joy Sounds Choir by a friend. As with Chris Hansen, the group has become like family to Thomas.
“All of us in the choir have some type of physical condition,” she said. “But we get together and have fun singing. We go to a choir retreat (at the Christian Berets camp) once a year and we sang at the fun run (a camp fundraiser).”
She’s performed with them eight times now, including the holiday concert Dec. 10 at Big Valley Grace.
“The singing and the songs and everybody,” she said. “We sang ‘Jingle Bells’ and “The Greatest Gift.’ And we do some songs in sign language.”
Most concerts follow different themes and types of music. But the mojo, the moments and the magic are undeniable for the members of the Joy Sounds Choir.
Their varying disabilities enable them to sing as one.