Homeless to Home Free
Here’s a good news story that will brighten your day.
“She used to live in the Hoboken Homeless Shelter and she is now living in her own place and mounting a campaign to get votes in a national talent competition where she just won a first-place trophy. She now has a shot at the $100,000 grand prize, but it depends on people voting for her online (beginning July 6).”
Homeless to Home Free
When last year I started volunteering an hour of my time a week to life coach a resident of the local homeless shelter, never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined I’d witness the incredible journey of Mirna Zapata.
So far, this trip of hers has taken her from homelessness to a home, and from barely tapping her creative gifts to a first-place finish in the Best Potential Performance Solo Female singing category at the USA World Showcase in Las Vegas over Memorial Day weekend.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
On Oct. 4, 2007, I began meeting weekly with Mirna, an educated 33-year-old former social worker who was trying to transition back to “real” life after some self-described bad decisions and a nervous breakdown had resulted in hospitalization and then her release to the Hoboken Homeless Shelter. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am writing all of this with Mirna’s permission). Since she was already partaking in regular group therapy sessions at the hospital and immersing herself in job training, computer and creative writing courses at the shelter, I started talking to her about what kind of goals we could set to move her forward.
She had filled out an intake questionnaire for me and had used the words “singing” or “singer” a number of times, so I began to explore just how serious she was about performing. As it turns out, Mirna is a darned good, vocally-trained singer who comes alive at the very thought of getting up in front of an audience. She had, in fact, started singing at age 13, participated in her church choir, taken voice lessons at Ferris High School in Jersey City (N.J.), done variety shows at the George Street Playhouse and Crossroads Theatre while studying psychology at Rutgers University, taken more formal voice training, won some and lost some on the karaoke circuit, and entered a competition called USA World Showcase in 2006 at which she earned an honorable mention. One of her goals was to get back there and compete in 2008.
The rub, of course, was that Mirna was living in a homeless shelter. Rehearsing there wasn’t an option. She belonged to a karaoke group and would get to occasionally perform at karaoke nights at local clubs, but the shelter had an early curfew that she had to heed. Meanwhile, she was also immersed in finding a place to live.
Each week Mirna and I negotiated the terrain of her limited options and came up with ways for her to keep this goal alive. She would arrive at our meetings in a local café with a warm, enthusiastic spirit, only occasionally feeling discouraged. I mentioned her story in my monthly life coaching newsletter and a handful of generous people were touched enough to contribute money to help her get back to Las Vegas. She collected enough for the entry fee, a dress to wear for the competition and a bus ticket to get there.
SEE THE REST OF THE ARTICLE AFTER THE JUMP…
(Homeless to Home Free, continued…)
By mid-March, she had achieved her first goal – to live in her own place. Suddenly, not only did she have a place to call her own, but a place to rehearse for the looming competition (May 24). As Mirna began getting her affairs in order, she kept working her voice and selected a song called The Holy City to sing at the showcase.
“I knew a lot of other people would do show tunes, things that were a little more modern,” she said of her choice. “I wanted something different from anybody else. I wanted to stick out like a sore thumb.”
But first she had to get there. In order to check in on Friday (May 23), she got on a bus from Newark, N.J., on Tuesday to embark on the three-day journey. The bus broke down twice en route to Las Vegas.
“First in Harrisburg (Pa.), and then in Missouri the muffler fell off,” Mirna said. “After a few hours, I walked over to the lady at the counter and I said, ‘People have paid for me to go to this showcase. What will I do?’ She looked at her computer and told me she could get me there by 5:20 Friday morning.”
Mirna arrived by 6 a.m., registered, showered, napped and tried to undo three days of being on a bus. She approached the day with the attitude of doing the best job she could do. When her turn came – near the end because her last name begins with a ‘Z’ – she let it rip in the one minute the contestants are allotted to strut their stuff.
“I heard myself singing and I was like, ‘wow, that’s the best I’ve sounded in a long time,’” Mirna said. “It was satisfying for me at that point. I didn’t know about the judges, but I was happy with my performance.”
Apparently they were happy, too. The next thing Mirna knew, she was posing with her first-place trophy in the solo female category. The way the competition works, the first-place winners in every category will be posted on the USA World Showcase Web site beginning July 6. Users will then watch the performances and vote for their favorite (Check out www.usaworldshowcase.com to cast your vote!). The winner will receive $100,000 and some of the top finalists will win a recording demo and other prizes.
Aside from the obvious exposure for her singing talent, Mirna sees this as an opportunity to pay off her debt, save, invest, and give back to the Hoboken Homeless Shelter, without which she says she would have been “sleeping in a park somewhere.” She is currently mounting a campaign to get votes, writing a musical she calls Judas, and working the karaoke circuit. In fact, last week a friend and I finally witnessed her singing firsthand at a karaoke night in Manhattan. Mirna chose One Moment in Time — made famous, of course, by Whitney Houston — and boy did she belt out that song.
““My creativity was shut down for a long time,” Mirna said. “Now I think, all the negative energy is behind you. Put that in the past and look to the future. Being in the homeless shelter was a wake-up call. I kept thinking, you’re doing something absolutely wrong with your life. I was too focused on other people in the past and losing a lot of myself. I don’t want to ever go back to that again. Now I ask, what makes me happy? What makes Mirna happy?”
Singing. Singing makes Mirna happy. If I had any doubt, the tone in her voice when I called her on Memorial Day to inquire how she did at the showcase told the story. I’ll never forget her exuberant, “Nancy, guess what?”
Incidentally, the bus did not break down on the journey back from Las Vegas.
“It was smooth sailing,” Mirna said. “When the pressure’s off, everything runs smoothly. Ain’t that the kicker?”
Yes, indeed. Couldn’t have imagined it in my wildest dreams.