In America today, something truly amazing is going viral — a new spirit of unity and giving.

In that rising spirit, hundreds of volunteers are powering a new program for children from lower income neighborhoods who are growing up amid poverty, crime and neglect. Called Francis in the Schools, it aims to uplift children through the transformative power of music, drama, and entertainment. And now, a famous singing friar from Assisi is lending his “voice of joy” to the effort.

Alessandro Brustenghi is a 36 year old Franciscan friar whose radiant tenor voice has been compared to Andrea Bocelli and whose first album, “Voice from Assisi” reached number one on England’s classical chart. Why would a friar who has sung for the Pope, has a million hits on YouTube, and recorded albums on a major label make his first trip to America only to give free concerts for children? Simple. Like the volunteers for the Francis in the Schools program, the friar believes people should use their gifts in service to others. Inspiring children with love, joy, self-worth and hope can have an enduring impact on their lives.

Francis in the Schools started in California three years ago when retired clinical psychologist, Dr. Carol Conner, concerned about the wealth disparities in San Francisco, conceived of a daylong field trip, completely free, for school children from the economically hardest hit neighborhoods of the Bay Area. The purpose of the field trip was to inspire children with a deeply rooted civics lesson: the positive role model of their city’s namesake, Saint Francis, and his timeless principles of brotherhood, compassion and selfless service. She envisioned a day of “perfect joy” in which school children of all faiths and backgrounds would experience the genuine respect and caring so lacking in their lives. But it was an idea that couldn’t be realized alone; it would require the time and resources of many volunteers.

At this point, hundreds of people as well as local businesses emerged and collaborated in the finest American tradition of goodwill and generosity, just to create one magical day for children whose lives have known little of magic. Volunteers of all ages, professions, cultures and faiths set to work to produce a musical play on the life of Francis, followed by an Umbrian Renaissance style “Faire” in a nearby park. Writers, actors, singers, and costume-makers created a musical. Cooks prepared delicious lunches and treats, and local restaurants donated food and preparation facilities. Teens and retired teachers organized games. Young adults choreographed easy-to-learn dances. Artists created face-painting designs. Florists and growers donated fresh flowers so each child could arrange his or her own bouquet. Volunteers worked out of homes, abandoned storefronts, a hospital and school kitchens, anywhere they could find the space and equipment they needed. There were teams for bus arrangements, teams to transport tents, food and flowers, and teams of “pied pipers” to escort the children. Everything possible was done to shower the children with love and respect and to make the day as perfect as possible for them.

And it worked. The first event (see the video below) was such a success it led to another…and another…and another. The events got bigger; donations and volunteers increased; more vendors offered discounts. The positive force of Francis as a role model began to take hold in the children and the community.

When Dr. Conner heard Friar Allesandro’s recordings, she thought the tender strength of his voice, the purity and conviction, carried a fragrance of joy the children would respond to. She reached out, and he felt compelled by the program to accept Dr. Conner’s invitation in 2013 to make his first trip to America to sing for 1400 children in Oakland, California. The children were indeed spellbound.

“This was the happiest day of my life,” said one.

“The trip was great because the people…treated me like family,” said the Friar.

One teacher observed, “It was a magical day of beauty and learning and is a potential life-changing event in the lives of our children.”

To date, the Francis in the Schools program has served more than 4000 children from public as well as parochial schools. The program has been so successful that it’s been invited to come east. In October, some 300 volunteers will host more than 2000 children in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore for their own perfect days of joy. Friar Allesandro will also return to sing at each one. The volunteers have been working for months to make the East Coast events as special as California’s, in a vibrant example of the power for change when we all join together to serve those in need.

What inspires these volunteers and donating organizations? True prosperity comes from a loving sharing with others. They through their efforts thousands of children are deeply touched and offered new, positive, life-affirming self-identities.

Upcoming Concerts and Faires are at Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, on October 10, in Washington, DC; and on October 17, at the Baltimore Basilica.

(WATCH the video below)


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