Says Joe Maddon: “The volunteers are the unsung heroes. Without them, none of our efforts occur.” Every month, the Respect 90 Foundation will salute a distinguished volunteer from the communities of Tampa Bay, Chicago, Mesa, Arizona or Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Respect 90 will present a $1,000 grant to that volunteer’s charity. Should you have someone who is deserving, please let us know.
Madge & Bob Erlenbaugh | Misericordia Heart of Mercy (Chicago)
The choir for Misericordia Heart of Mercy’s 4 p.m. Saturday mass learns a new song every week.
“I keep fighting voices in my mind that say I’m not enough
Every single lie that tells me I will never measure up.
Am I more than just a song of every high and every low
Remind me once again just who I am because I need to know.”
The verses to their newest song are not lost on the parishioners, nor are they lost Bob Erlenbaugh and his wife Madge, directors of the choir known as the Heart -zingers, 30 singers and 20 signers all of whom reside on Misericordia’s 31- acre Chicago campus which provides a community of care for persons with mild to profound developmental disabilities.
“Madge and I tell everybody we have two families,” says Bob. “We have our choir of 50 and we have our four kids and 16 grandkids.”
What began as a temporary role for the Erlenbaughs has become 17 years of faithful volunteerism and dedication that reaches beyond the world of music. While their life story of giving dates back more than 50 years, this latest chapter began on a winter Saturday afternoon in 2003.
“We came to that particular mass at Misericordia for the first time because Madge was trying to learn how to sign,” recalls Bob. “One of our daughters teaches deaf children and so she wanted to converse in sign with her daughter. We had heard that this mass had a signer and the music was beautiful. So, we show up and there was no music, no signer.”
After the mass, they were approached by Sister Rosemary Connelly, Misericordia’s long-time executive director. Although members of different parishes, they weren’t strangers. During his 40 years of teaching and coaching in Chicago’s inner city, Bob had directed choirs and guitar groups from his school and church that had played as guests at Misericordia.
“Sister told us their regular music director, Karen Wolzak, who had been doing it for 28 years, was ill and asked if we could fill in,” says Bob. “I thought, yeah, we could fill in. I play handball every Saturday morning and it wasn’t going to interfere with that so we said we could do that.
“Sadly, three weeks after we started, Karen passed away, so we have been filling in for almost 18 years now.”
It wasn’t long after they arrived, that Madge and Bob overheard some of the Misericordia residents singing. They were good. An idea was born.
“We asked ourselves, ‘Could we start a choir with the residents?’” recounts Bob. “We met with Sister Rosemary and explained what we wanted to do and she was not real excited about it to begin with because her fear was of somebody not clapping or maybe even making fun of the choir members, so we had to meet with her a couple of times before we could convince her to go for it.”
The couple partnered with officials from the local library to set up a neighborhood concert as a trial for the newly formed choir. The reviews were enough to get Sister Rosemary on board.
“So, we went from Sister not being too excited at the beginning to now where she will call Madge with an event that is six months away!” Bob says proudly.
Says sister Rosemary: “Madge and Bob not only brought “the gift of music” throughout our campus, but because of the choir they have enriched the lives of its members by exposing them to hundreds of unique opportunities to reach out to the public – thus changing the attitudes of many in regard to our adults’ capacity of being true entertainers.”
The scheduling is actually one of the couple’s biggest challenges. “The residents have so many great opportunities right here (at Misericordia),” says Madge. “We have to acknowledge that their jobs and other activities here are important and many of them also work out in the community or volunteer.”
The group practices every Thursday night and Saturday afternoons before the mass. Then the choir leads the liturgy of the 4 p.m. mass. Bob and Madge also host a sing-a-long for all of Misericordia’s residents on Wednesday nights. It regularly draws 150 from the campus.
Thanks partly to Misericordia’s highly acclaimed reputation, the choir has been able to sing with the likes of Paul Simon, Eddie Vedder, Nils Lofgen and Miguel Cervantes from Hamilton. They have performed with the National Republic Orchestra of Ireland at Chicago’s 100-year old Orchestra Hall.
And, of course, for those off-campus performances, Bob drives the bus.
“Sister Rosemary has a saying that the right people seem to appear at the right time,” says Bob.
“We feel like the choir members and so many Mis’ residents have taught us much more than we could ever teach them,” Madge chimes in. “We marvel at their acceptance of their limitations but because Misericordia values and challenges them like no other place, they have grown and achieved and developed in ways Sister Rosemary or we never dreamed they could. We are amazed every week at their abilities and often forget that we are working with special needs folks who teach us acceptance and growth.”
It is teaching that has been at the center of the Erlenbaughs’ story since it began in 1963 when they met while both were providing religious education to special needs students. As it turned out, the two were also attending classes at Loyola University as they shared their first experience with the disabled at a time when special education was in its infancy.
Bob was playing the guitar at one of the classes when Madge first walked into his life. “She had absolutely knockout long red hair that went down to her waist,” remembers Bob. That was it. The special needs students were among those at their wedding three years later.
Presently, the two 75-year-old Chicago natives are thrilled their children are following the same path. Daughters Jamie, Marijo and Maggie are all teachers- two in the special needs field- and their daughter-in-law Kristin is a psychologist in the public schools.
“We’re hoping when we are gone our kids will pick up the slack,” says Bob. “We’ve been so blessed between our lives and our family and this is our way of giving back.”
There could not be a better place to receive their generosity. Through a spectrum of residential options and with a wide variety of programs, Misericordia currently serves more than 600 children and adults residentially, from diverse racial, religious and socio-economic backgrounds. Twenty percent of their residents either come from poverty families or have no families and are wards of the State.
By serving society’s most vulnerable citizens, Misericordia also serves the families who want the best for them, yet cannot provide it at home.
Rick Vaughn | Executive Director, Respect 90 Foundation
For more information on the Misericordia Heart of Mercy, go to www.misericordia.com