UPDATE: The Huffington Post has chosen Marge Nykaza as its "Greatest Person of the Day"—an honor recognizing people who confront issues in their community with creativity and passion.
Marge Nykaza has always believed in the power of music.
“I just knew this was a part of my life,” she said, reminiscing about her first public singing experience at her uncle’s wedding with her sister. At 4 years of age, Nykaza chose her career, or rather it chose her.
That was the moment that “music made an impact on my life,” she said.
Coming from a musical family, Nykaza, who grew up in the area and graduated from , always sang in choirs and with her father, Thomas O’Connell, one of the founders of the Greater Chicago Food Depository. He also instilled the love for service in her, she says.
Years later, Nykaza, now 57, combined her two passions to found Harmony, Hope and Healing, non-profit organization that collaborates with social service agencies and community-based organizations in the Chicago area to help people “find their voice” through the pain and heartache that results from addictions, incarceration, homelessness, abuse and being cast out of society.
“We are a creative and therapeutic music program offering dignity and spiritual healing to homeless and underserved women, children and men in the Chicago area,” said Nykaza.
Founded in 2000, the organization was incorporated as a non-profit in 2003. To date, Nykaza and her team host musical classes in five different locations in the Englewood, West Loop, Woodlawn and New City neighborhoods.
Harmony Hope and Healing grew out of an assignment Nykaza needed to do to complete her Masters in Pastoral Studies from Loyola University in 2000 while she taught music and theology at .
“I took a class called 'Women, Ministry in the City' at Loyola and did outreach at St. Martin DePorres House of Hope,” said Nykaza, who lives in Evergreen Park. “I asked to start a music program at the shelter, and it was just going to be a summer project.”
But Nykaza continued the project with the choir’s first concert later that year, and with support from the Sisters of Mercy and the Institute of Women Today, she began planning for Harmony Hope and Healing.
Today, the organization’s programs include adult music sessions, musical English lessons for non-native English speakers, senior group piano lessons, senior choir rehearsals, parent/child music classes, pre-school music classes and choir performances in public and private venues. As a certified cross-cultural healing music practitioner, Nykaza said she recognizes she can "listen with open ears."
"It's more about the sound of the music, itself, for the healing. Certain instruments help with certain body parts," she said. "From ancient cultures who have very simple instruments, music has always been a healing tool. We're coming back to the roots of music."
Her mantra is "belief+intention+sound = healing."
According to Nykaza, participants at Harmony, Hope and Healing go through a 12-step program, "looking at music, not as a commodity, not as entertainment, but to help us find a voice, resonate and be healed to help ourselves and the world."
Nykaza said she founded Harmony Hope and Healing on the basis of lending a helping hand without judgment.
“Life comes and drugs and addictions take over their lives. You don’t need to tell me your story,” she said. “It’s about finding your authentic voice, believing that you have a voice and that people want to hear it.”
Nykaza said with the pressures of life, many people have been silenced, but wants to teach people that “it’s OK to speak.”
“It’s much more than singing, it’s about finding your own truth about who you are,” she said, and creating peace, wherever you are.
“It’s something just to create a space of peace for yourself,” Nykaza said to her class during a session in October as they sang the Peace Prayer. “And even if you can’t, physically sing it, just even imagining it, finding that space of peace, and protection is very important, because misery loves company. Not in this space!”
Nykaza said she knows that she couldn’t do this alone. What inspires her the most about the organization are the many participants who chip in to help others find their voice.
“The work is beautiful, and yet, you can have all these great ideas. But it’s every day being faithful to the work, realizing that the participants of Harmony, Hope and Healing teach us who we need to be.”
“Being present to witness the transformation of others," is what inspires Jolie Perryman, 41, the most. She is a program participant turned music program assistant.
“Having been a victim and now a survivor of domestic violence, it was very important for me to find my voice. I had diminished my voice and my intelligence in my relationships. Through music, I was able to find it and help others find it as well,” she said. After two years with the orgnization, Perryman said she's happy her experience can help others heal.
"Each day I’m getting stronger. Each day I’m more hopeful and joyful than before," said Tara Presti, 39, who left a life of addiction and violence.
"I really didn’t have a voice. I really didn’t express myself before I came here," she said.
Amanda Longe, 43, who was also a participant, is now a volunteer.
"I volunteered at a time in my life when I was mourning, grieving and in a lot of sorrow. And through singing ... music soothes the soul, and so another phase in my life I healed from, and it’s just been a beautiful ride."
Nykaza knew Harmony Hope and Healing would be a success, she said, “because music has always been a healing tool for me. I have sung through many, many ups and downs of my life. Even in this imagining of Harmony, Hope and Healing, I knew how it works for me, so I believed that it might help others.”
Music has helped Nykaza through some of the toughest times in her life, she said, and is now helping her through her battle with breast cancer.
“Having been diagnosed with breast cancer last April, the first thing I did was, I started up with a voice teacher and I sang my way through my chemotherapy” Nykaza said, "and reconnected with my old voice teacher, and I kept singing.”
She already considers herself a survivor.