Members of the Matsiko World Orphan Choir show off their talents at the Ketchum Town Square on Tuesday. These children are sponsored for a one-year tour of the United States and are geared up to complete college degrees back home.
Express photo by Willy Cook
They have come to town every year for the past five years, wearing bright colors and beaming smiles. They dance, sing like angels, give hugs to anyone within reach, and then drive on to their next performance.
The Matsiko World Orphan Choir is not only good entertainment. These young children from India, Peru and Africa are the flagship troupe of a nonprofit organization working to bring basic services and the promise of higher education to impoverished and at-risk youth around the world.
“Matsiko [which means hope] isn’t just a choir,” said Don Windham, founder of the International Children’s Network, a private nonprofit organization that works through international embassies and local agencies to recruit performers from disadvantaged circumstances in developing countries.
The Matsiko singers and dancers spend one year in the U.S. before returning home. They are also sponsored to complete college degrees in their home countries.
“It is amazing to see these kids breaking out of their shells. When they return home, they work to help others in their communities,” Windham said.
Mirta Casaperalta was recruited to Matsiko when she was 12 years old, from a village at 12,000 feet in the Andes near Arequipa, Peru. At 24, she has returned to the choir in order to chaperone several younger Peruvian singers, including 11-year-old Alicia Cami, who beams with a permanent grin at Starbucks café in Ketchum, where the group performed on Tuesday.
Alicia, who is only just beginning to speak English, identifies several things that have delighted her in America. “Pizza,” “airplanes” and “waffles,” she says. She has two brothers and two sisters back in Peru.
Casaperalta said the International Children’s Network has changed the lives of many at-risk or impoverished children in Alicia’s village, providing basic nutritional needs and school supplies for farming families that do not own land and have struggled to care for their children.
“Alicia lost her father when she was seven years old,” said Casaperalta. “Her mother has trouble with her eyes. The family was living on the ground. Now they have a mattress and a table.”
Casaperalta, who now speaks English fluently, is working toward a degree in business administration. She has plans to work in the burgeoning tourism industry in Peru.
Thirteen-year-old Shivani Udayam is one of several Matsiko Choir members named for the Udyam orphanage where they live in Pondicherry, India. With a glowing presence on stage and off, Shivani has taken a liking to American pancakes.
Matsiko Choir members are sponsored individually for about $35 per month, with the goal of completing a college degree, said Windham.
Solomon Quoi Quoi is 14 years old. He joined the Matsiko Choir three years ago. He was born in Paynesville, on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia, a country that has been racked by many years of civil strife. Liberia is currently under mandatory curfew due to an outbreak of the Ebola virus.
Quoi Quoi left a brother and sister in Liberia to tour with Matsiko. He said he is trying to break his strong Creole dialect with proper English during his year in the United States. Thanks to a sponsor arranged by the International Children’s Network, he is in school, with plans to attend college.
“I want to be a soldier,” Quoi Quoi says. “I want to be a military man.”
Quoi Quoi will return to Liberia in a few weeks, to an apartment at the Christ Power Intercessory Church, a room that Windham’s group found for him.
At 25, Lawrence Teah is the eldest of the performers. Also from Monrovia, Liberia, Teah keeps the beat on a Djembe “talking drum” for the Matsiko Choir. He joined Matskio in 2010. Like Casaperalta, Teah has returned to the Matsiko tour as a chaperone for younger performers, including two young girls wearing corn braids.
“The International Children’s Network took the responsibility of my parents to send me to college,” Teah said. “Currently, I am studying petroleum engineering and accounting. I hope to go to law school.”
Windham said he was inspired to help disadvantaged children after traveling with Irish church leader Brendan McCarthy to Uganda.
“I met a boy named Abraham in Uganda who was living destitute, yet he told me that he had been at the top of his class in school,” said Windham, who began networking among his friends to find sponsors for kids like Abraham. Windham said about 6,000 children have been sponsored by the organization since it was founded in 2008.
The Matsiko Choir performers will have many eye-opening experiences while on the road, from Seattle to Chicago and Atlanta and back to the West Coast. The trip has also been special for Windham and his fellow organizers. At a historical museum in Bend, Ore., the kids saw displays of Western pioneers living rough many years ago, cooking over fires and washing clothes by hand with washboards.
“One of them said, ‘Hey, look, that is how we live back home,’” said Windham. “The truth is that some of them can’t afford washboards at all.”
For more information on the International Children’s Network, go to www.icnchildren.net. To support the Matsiko Choir with home stays the next time they are in town, contact Margaret Sundholm at (208) 309-1407, or email@example.com.