Sophie Maxwell has always sung, just for the joy of it it.
Usually in the car, at the top of her voice – and, she admits, rarely in tune.
But one day, when the young Sheffield social entrepreneur realised the teens she ferried to and fro from her small college for society’s ‘lost causes’ were all singing along with her, she realised there was something magical going on.
“I realised it was infectious - and that singing broke through barriers and brought people together,” says Sophie. “I thought I could harness it into something really positive,” she says.
At first, her aim was raising money. Her ReallyNEET College in Shalesmoor was in urgent need of cash to pay the rent. She set her heart on a fundraising concert, then set about finding the entertainment for nothing - by forming a choir from the communities of Southey Green and Parson Cross.
Glee Bah Gum community choir was born at The Church on the Corner in Southey three months ago. At first, numbers were few and members were wheedled and cajoled into coming along. For the majority, singing in public was the last thing they wanted to do. But within hours, they were getting a huge kick from raising their voices in unison.
Says Sophie: “ People aged from 9 to 72 had overcome isolation, independence barriers and prejudices and come together like never before. It was amazing to witness.”
The concert, staged on November 4, raised £1,500. But afterwards, Sophie realised it meant too much to its members to close down.
“Some have been lonely, some in trouble with the police before, some struggling with big life challenges, addictions and hopelessness,” says Sophie.
“The choir has brought each and every one of them hope, fun, a sense of purpose and belonging. I know how that feels; I was once out of control and homeless.”
She stopped going to school in 2001 when her mum had to move the family from home to home to escape domestic violence. It impacted on her behaviour and by 16 she was in hostel accommodation. Her life spiralled down and she spent two years homeless in Sheffield, living in six different hostels.
What put the song back in her heart was sport.
She longed to be a runner and turned up at a junior athletics club at Don Valley. Student volunteer athletics coach Rob Creasey saw her potential - as a sportswoman and a motivating force for other young people.
With his support, she turned her life around. She ended up with a degree in leisure events management from Sheffield Hallam University and, to mentor teens the way she had been, she set up AW Education, supported by the university’s Enterprise Centre. The company gets teenagers engaging positively with education again and has worked with hundreds of young people across South Yorkshire.
When she felt some of her young people needed longer term nurturing, in March she set up The ReallyNEET College, a place where young people not in employment, education or training could come. Funded by an initial National Lottery investment of just £3,500, the venue has a boxing gym, enterprise centre and a music studio.
Winner in 2010 of two national Crisis - Changing Lives Awards, 24-year-old Sophie’s vision is to have a chain of colleges full of young people for whom all else has failed.
Singers in the Glee Bah Gum Choir, already changing their own lives through music, are helping to make that dream a reality.
Their next gig is Firth Park’s December 1 Christmas lights switch-on and voices growing in confidence will carry on, singing the uplifting lyrics from songs like Over the Rainbow and Don’t Stop Believing, which now sum up the way they feel about life.
Bullies may have made her school days a misery, but when Courtney Smith stands up to sing, she knows no fear.
The Parson Cross nine-year-old shines with such confidence, you’d think she was a born performer.
But at her first choir session, the Mansell Primary pupil was so shy she could hardly breathe and had panic attacks.
“Courtney has blossomed because of singing and the kindness shown to her by people who were total strangers,” says her mum Margaret. “She’s totally confident on that stage now. She sang a solo at the concert – the song Tomorrow from the musical Annie. - and people were in tears.
“She has been made to feel special and she thinks she can do anything now. Nothing phases her. School were very good about the bullying, but Courtney’s new attitude to life means other children don’t see her as a target any more.”
Mum of five Margaret joined the choir as her way of supporting the ReallyNEET college, which son Aaron, 16 and diagnosed with ADHD, attends.
“I’d never sung in my life before; even in school assembly I didn’t have the confidence to join in. I did this to support Sophie, who is the most caring person I’ve ever met.
“We all feel we are in the same boat, all having a laugh and achieving. So many friendships have been made and we can’t wait for Monday night choir practise. It’s changed all of us.”
Mary Nortcliff didn’t only find her voice from joining the choir, she got a new lease of life and a new best friend.
Mary, 41, lives with her parents. She’s a carer for her dad, who has a chronic heart condition, and her mum has lung cancer. Until she started choir rehearsals, the only time she stepped foot out of the door was to go to the local shops in Parson Cross.
She only accepted an invite to what she thought was a local concert because it was in aid of a project for kids who felt like she once had. “I turned up and it was this new choir they wanted me to join,” she says. “I thought, no way. But by the end of the night, I’d really enjoyed myself and I’d met some really nice people. One of them was Dayle Hill, who is now my best friend. And amazingly, I’d been told I’d got a good voice.”
More was to come, though; Mary was asked to sing a solo at the choir’s charity concert.
She stepped onto the stage draped in a feather boa and belted out the Cabaret hit All That Jazz.
“I sang to 500 people and it felt amazing,” she says. On stage, you’re not that shy, insecure person anymore.. And you’re making people happy.”
She’s now starting one to one singing lessons with choir mistress Lizzie Yoxall. “I want to sing jazz,” she says.