The more than 30 perfectly harmonized voices captivated the audience as they delivered an emotionally powerful rendition of “Sounds of the Sidewalk.” This was not the first time the Voices of Our City Choir has wowed the crowd.

Singing before hundreds of Midway members and guests on the USS Midway Museum during San Diego’s 50th annual Parade of Lights, the choir was as inspirational as they were entertaining.

Voices of Our City is not your run-of-the-mill choir. Co-founded in 2016 by Steph Johnson and Nina Deering, the choir is made up predominantly of people experiencing homelessness, including many unsheltered military veterans, as well as those who are living far below the poverty line where life remains a tremendous struggle.

“For me, our mission is our goal,” said Steph, a San Diego native who taught herself to play the guitar at age 20. “I want to change the perception and experience of homelessness through the healing power of music, individualized case management and advocacy.”

Voices of Our City Choir performs on board the USS Midway Museum.

The non-profit organization serves as a safe space for assistance and community building for the homeless. The choir has already helped more than 70 of its unsheltered members get into temporary or permanent housing.

A grateful success story belongs to a military veteran who was homeless for seven years.

Mark Kaleimamahu has confronted many obstacles in his 63 years. A teenage parent at age 16, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps two years later to provide security for his young family.

“I am a proud Marine veteran and went to boot camp right here in San Diego,” said Mark, who rose to the rank of sergeant. “I love my time in the Corps.”

Even after leaving the service, Mark continued to face challenges over the years that made it difficult raising and supporting a family. Struggles with addiction, health issues and job losses contributed to his eventual homelessness.

Years of despair turned to hope, however, when Mark discovered the choir.

“My life changed by meeting Steph and Nina,” said Mark, a native of Hawaii. “We met weekly and embarked on the journey of music and love that has been like a dream for those experiencing homelessness in San Diego. I was captured by the music and people in the choir who are my family today.”

He is also no longer living on the street. For the past three years, Mark has enjoyed his own apartment in a local veterans’ complex.

“We are dedicated to making lasting change and the only way we will ever have an impact on the homelessness crisis is if we create opportunities where there are none,” said Steph, who has recorded multiple albums prior to starting the choir. “We are a bridge to creativity, to healing and rebuilding one’s self-awareness of their unlimited potential.”

Lorna De La Cruz, who spent 30 years in the Air Force, has also found sanctuary with the choir. While she’s never experienced homelessness, she gravitated strongly to the therapeutic nature of the organization.

“To bring humanity and voice to our unsheltered neighbors resonated powerfully,” said Lorna, the daughter of a Marine Corps veteran. “Voices helps me learn more about the importance of having the basic essentials for every human. I have become more aware, compassionate, and motivated to help others experiencing being unsheltered. Many of my fellow choir members teach me about resilience, courage, and perseverance.”

An unexpected but welcome spotlight was focused on the choir nationally when, in 2020, they made it to the semi-finals of

“America’s Got Talent” on NBC. The appearance on the prime-time network show was not only electrifying for the choir members, but it also brought broader attention to those who are unsheltered.

Voice of Our City Choir competing on “America’s Got Talent” television show in 2020.

“The choir learned so much from the experience and had fun being on the show,” said the 41-year-old Steph. “It also gave us the opportunity to talk about homelessness issues on a national platform, which helped bring greater awareness to many of the problems people are facing today.”

“From the streets to the stage has been the experience of a lifetime for me,” said Mark.

While now well known for their performances, the deeper purpose of the choir continues to be uplifting those who need a helping hand.

“Voices has helped me put real faces and genuine life stories to impersonal statistics and places,” said Lorna, who is currently working on her Ph. D. in education. “Our choir focuses on dignity and humanity.”

For Steph, there is no separation between herself and the people she meets, and her spirit remains centered in kindness.

“We are one heartbeat, sharing the experience of life,” said Steph, an award-winning recording artist whose music is a blend of jazz, soul, funk and blues. “I want the choir members to be better connected to self-care and love. We have become a family and every day I wake up in joy. I have found my purpose and I am grateful.”

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