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March 8, 2003

Heritage Christian's silent choir heads for nation's capital

From: The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, MT - 08 Mar 2003

By GAIL SCHONTZLER, Chronicle Staff Writer

Eleven-year-old Katie Smithgall had an almost angelic smile on her face as her hands swooped through the air, making signs for love, freedom and God.

Katie is one of 13 students who perform in a unique group -- the Heritage Signers, a silent choir. The students, all from Heritage Christian School in Bozeman, interpret inspirational songs through sign language.

Today the group is leaving for Washington, D.C., where they've been invited to perform Wednesday morning in the nation's Capitol for Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Conrad Burns and other Montanans visiting Washington.

During their week in Washington, the students will also perform for children at Gallaudet College for the hearing impaired, a church, private school and the National Children's Medical Hospital. And they'll get special tours of the Capitol and White House.

Sign language is fun and fascinating, said eighth-grader Alex Gaffke, 13. He has been in the choir since it started four years ago with a performance at the Montana Special Olympics.

"The songs we choose, and how we sign, it just shows God's power," Alex said.

"It's fun to speak a language that's not spoken, but (speaks) through actions," said Katie, a fifth-grader.

An invitation to Washington came from Baucus' office after the group performed two years ago at the governor's prayer breakfast in Helena.

"We're so excited" about performing in the capital, said director Wendy Thiesen, a Belgrade kindergarten teacher.

Each student had to raise about $750 for the trip. The students babysat, raked leaves, cleaned garages and took care of cats and dogs.

"I told them they couldn't ask for money," Thiesen said. "They had to work for it."

On Wednesday the students gave a send-off concert for about 100 family members and friends at the Abundant Life Fellowship church.

The students all wear white gloves that show up well against their black shirts and pants. They practice three to five hours a week to synchronize their hand movements.

Their songs range from the patriotic -- the "National Anthem" and "God Bless the USA" -- to inspirational and religious.

"I Can Only Imagine" asks what it might be like to see the face of God. "Reach" urges people to reach for their dreams, and "Love in Any Language" says that different people still share the language of love.

"It's a ministry, outreach for Heritage Christian," said coordinator Colleen Howell, whose son performs in the group.

There are lots of choirs that sing, she said. What's unusual about this group is that it helps people "see" music.

"With presentation in sign, you really listen to the music differently," Howell said. "It's very, very powerful."

©2003 the Bozeman Daily Chronicle