The life of Eddie Baraka Mony, pictured, changed through the support of Mirijam and Stuart Spoelstra who sponsored Mony through Chalice to allow him to pursue his dream of becoming an opera singer. Photo courtesy Julianna Psarris

Aspiring opera star to meet his benefactor at Canadian debut

  • May 6, 2017

What do you say to a stranger who changed your life?

Eddie Baraka Mony has been contemplating that question as he prepares to visit Canada for the first time.

Mony, 24, will arrive May 6 to finally meet the woman who helped change his life by sponsoring him through the Catholic agency Chalice since he was a child growing up in Kenya. Because of the support of Mirijam Spoelstra, Mony has been able to pursue a dream of being a star on the opera stage.

“To finally go and meet her and see the person that made this possible…. It’s very exciting, but also emotional, sentimental. It’s many things I cannot explain,” said Mony.

It is only fitting that Mony and Spoelstra intend to celebrate their first meeting through their passion of music.

Spoelstra, who is director of the Belleville Choral Society, is organizing a spring concert May 14 at Bridge Street United Church in Belleville, Ont. Mony will be performing a collection of classical arias, opera excerpts and traditional Kenyan folk songs.

Mony has sung on many international stages, performing as a tenor soloist in Kenya, Finland and the United States. This first performance in Canada, though, will be extra special.

Three years ago, Mony wrote to Spoelstra and told her that he was admitted to the prestigious Jacobs School of Music at the University of Indiana, with a partial scholarship and the support of the UK-based Martyn Donaldson Music Trust. Since then, it has been their shared dream to meet and perform together.

But before the world of music opened up to Mony, there was Chalice.

Chalice is a Canadian Catholic charity that supports community initiatives in developing countries through sponsorship of children and elderly in need. Last year, it sponsored almost 50,000 children and elderly in 15 developing countries.

Mony was 14 years old when he first applied for Chalice’s sponsorship program in 2007. His father died when he was only seven years old, which made it difficult for his mother to afford schooling for him and his four siblings.

Mony’s mother works as a primary school teacher in the public sector. With her salary alone, the family could not afford to send all five children to school without help from an organization like Chalice.

Through Spoelstra’s monthly donations, Mony was able to leave his small village to attend high school at Starehe Boys’ Centre and School in Nairobi. Chalice helped pay for his tuition, his uniform, his books and anything else he needed for his education.

Mony said studying in Starehe opened the world to him. He began to dream about being a lawyer and maybe perhaps a chief justice in Kenya.

Then a group of volunteers from the Martyn Donaldson Music Trust program came to visit the school one summer. He always loved singing Kenyan folk songs, but this was the first time that he encountered classical, opera music.

“That sort of exposure to music strengthened my desire to actually select music as a career,” he said. “It inspired me and I just loved it. Music has given me more gifts than I could have ever imagined.”

Spoelstra’s encouragement also played a significant role in Mony’s desire to pursue music. Even with their very different life experiences, their shared passion connected them through the distance.

Mony vividly remembers when he first heard Spoelstra’s name. A Chalice sponsorship officer had just told him that he had been matched with a sponsor.

Mony remembers saying her name over and over again in his mind because he wanted to memorize it together with his Chalice sponsorship number.

“I mean, it’s a stranger that you don’t now know that decided to invest in your future,” said Mony. “The kind of emotion that one has in hearing of such news cannot be clearly explained. I was just thankful. That’s the simplest way I can put it.”

Most of the boys that attended Starehe school were also sponsored through Chalice. They were all encouraged to write letters to their sponsors and keep in touch.

Mony said delivery days were an event at the school. He and his friends would sit together under the shade of a tree to share stories from their sponsors and then talk about what they would write back.

“The letters were precious not just because they came from our sponsors but because they were from outside of Kenya,” he said. “It had that exotic feeling to it.”

When letters arrived in Spoelstra’s mailbox, it was an event for the family, too.

“It was very, very exciting when we would get a letter in the mailbox,” said Spoelstra. “We would sit down and read it and see the pictures and we became very connected. This person is sharing their life and their aspirations. For me, it was a parental connection.”

Spoelstra has sponsored many children through Chalice and various organizations. In fact, it was her late husband Stuart who first began sponsoring children in his early 20s. When they were married in 2001, the couple decided it was something that they would continue to do.

Stuart died of brain cancer last year, but Spoelstra hopes to continue sponsoring children for many years to come.

“It is a privilege to be able to help someone,” said Spoelstra. “I feel just as grateful probably as Eddie. We’re so happy and so grateful that we’re able to do this.”

Spoelstra said watching a child’s life change because of your individual support is the most humbling experience. Sponsoring a child is contagious, she adds.

In fact, her daughter, Julianna Psarris, is sponsoring a child in India through Chalice. Psarris has written a new novel entitled The Faded Yellow Envelope, and will be donating 70 per cent of profits to Chalice’s sponsorship program.

Spoelstra sponsored Mony through his four years in high school and his first two years at Kenyatta University. Mony has since transitioned out of the sponsorship program but they still keep in touch via e-mail. They communicate almost every day, especially as they have been planning for their upcoming concert.

Mony said he will always be grateful for the opportunities he was afforded through Chalice, and now through his partial scholarship and support from the Martyn Donaldson Music Trust.

He dedicates his summers going back to his high school in Kenya, volunteering as a music teacher.

“It’s me giving back to my society,” said Mony. “Besides having good Kenyan music teachers at Starahe, I was inspired by a volunteer from the Martyn Donaldson Trust music program…. Now, I volunteer to do the same for someone else.”

Mony tells the young boys stories of when he was in their position. He tells them that it’s possible to pursue their dreams.

“I don’t really talk to them about (Chalice) because they all realize the importance of that sponsorship because of their background,” he said. “Thousands and thousands of students have graduated from Starehe who were supported by Chalice and other organizations and their lives have never been the same.”

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