Friday, December 18, 2009

She lights up our lives

Day 8
The 12 Days of Christmas at the Di

I first met Onalea Gilbertson a year ago when she came into my office, a one woman tour de force, eager to talk about her project. Tall. Blonde. Beautiful. A thousand watt lightbulb of a smile. Warm eyes. Warm heart. An actor. Singer. Writer. Poet. She had been commissioned by "This is My City", an initiative by The City of Calgary, Arts and Recreation Department, to create a play for High Performance Rodeo and was in my office to explore how we could work together.

It was the beginning of a relationship that I cherish today as a friendship that has added incredible light and lightness to my life.

For the past year, Onalea has come into the shelter one evening a week (and many other days too) to meet with a group of clients who have now become, The Di Singers. The objective was to explore and develop their creative talents, and to write and rehearse pieces for "TWO BIT OPER-EH?-SHUN", an oratoria exploring homelessness, poverty, drug addiction and mental illness on the streets of Calgary by Land's End Chamber Ensemble. The oratoria, a musical composition for voice and instruments telling a sacred story, is based on the vivid stories of the clients as well as Onalea's experiences at the shelter along with contributions by Calgary performing artists.

It has been a year of growth. A moving experience for everyone involved.

One woman. Many songs. Hundreds of stories. A lasting impact.

Like a fairy godmother creating Cinderella's ballgown, Onalea sweeps into the Di, and beneath the power of her smile and incredible spirit, magic is created. Her commitment, compassion, empathy and belief in the value of every human spirit weaves a magical thread of possibility into each moment, every word that is sung, every note that is played, every instrument strummed.

As part of
"TWO BIT OPER-EH?-SHUN", Onalea has also worked with a group of artists to create, the "Found Sound Orchestra" Taking cast-out items and found objects, Onalea, the artists and clients on our second floor day area have created unique musical instruments that can be strummed and jingled and jangled and shaken and vibrated to create unusual, sometimes discordant, yet always pleasant sounds.

The instruments remind me of many of the people we serve. Sometimes outcasts. Cast-offs. Cast-away. Separated from mainstream society by the streets they inhabit, they often do not see their own uniqueness and value. As they come to light at the Di, they begin to find their own song. They begin to find the courage to march to their own drummer, no matter how different. They begin to pick up the pieces of their lives to weave together a new scene, a new picture that suits them better, fits them more closely and opens them up to new songs, new sounds, new possibilities.

Under Onalea's tutelage, the performers of the Di Singers have begun to find their own unique voice. To create a sound that is harmonious and rich, vibrant and alive with the multi-faceted voices and stories of those who have answered her call to be part of an experience that is unscripted, unparallelled and unprecedented in the shelter.

An amazing year. An unforgettable journey. An incredible woman.

Since that first meeting a year ago, I have been blessed to get to know Onalea as an artist, a human being, and as a friend. She is kind, caring, deep. Generous. Passionate. Funny. Insightful. Perceptive. Inquisitive, but never pushy. Curious, but never intrusive. She probes gently, prods lightly and pushes effortlessly to bring out the best in everyone she meets and to encourage everyone she encounters to be their most amazing selves.

I don't' know what Onalea wants for Christmas this year but I know what I'd like to give her -- gratitude, love and joy. I don't know what's on her list, but I do know that the list of things she's brought to the shelter -- and to my life -- are priceless. Joy. Awareness. Laughter. Amazing conversation. Creativity. A world of new thinking. A palette of awesome colour to paint vivid and vibrant scenes of life beyond the street, beyond this place called homeless. With her compassion and creativity, she has bridged the divide separating us and them and created a space where every voice is heard, every song is valued. A place where labels no longer fit. A place where every person has the freedom to explore their own incredible worth and fill their space with all they're meant to be.

It has been a year of exploration and creation. A year of delving into all that makes this place so amazing. A year of digging into our creative cores to find the gold in the shadows of city skyscrapers and back alleys, the gold hiding within each and everyone of us, waiting to be dug up and brought to light.

Merry Christmas Onalea. Your passionate commitment to bringing out the best in every human being you meet, has made the Di richer and more vibrant. Thank you for sharing your light so generously. Thank you for adding your incredible hues of love and joy and laughter and hope to our world.

The High Performance Rodeo Presents
The Land's End Chamber Ensemble's Production of
World Premiere
Saturday January 16 2010 7:30pm
Grace Presbyterian Church 1009 15th Ave. SW
Tickets: or call -- 403-294-9494

Composed by Marcel Bergman. Libretto by Onalea Gilbertson
Featuring The Land's End Chamber Ensemble with
Onalea Gilbertsen, Elizabeth Stepkowski Tahran
Doug McKeag, the choir Rev 52 and the Di Singers

70 minutes plus 45 minute talk back reception

Art show and sale
by artists of the Wild Rose Studio
at the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre.

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