Pantry Pulse

Gift of folksinger transforms the pantry

by Barbara Rose

You feel the spirit of the music almost before you hear it, the minute you join the crowd filing into the First United Church's basement. The room would have the listless air of places where too many people facing hard times must wait to be served, but today is different.

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Standing in the far corner is a guy with a banjo, picking up a storm. By the time he switches to his guitar and begins singing, "You Are My Sunshine," he has transformed the moment. It's hard to stay mad or sad or frustrated or bored when first-rate music fills the room.

The musician is Mark Dvorak, artist-in-residence at the Old Town School of Folk Music and an award-winning performer, songwriter, teacher, and community  builder who crisscrosses the country giving more than 200 concerts a year.

His monthly performances at Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry began in January 2013 when an anonymous donor funded them in honor of a relative - an amateur musician who died too young. When the donor approached Dvorak about performing at the Pantry, he asked to visit first to see whether music would be appropriate.

"You're not necessarily here to entertain people," said the singer. "You're not here to engage them if they're not willing to be engaged. I just go in there and try to let the music do its work. I try to stay out of the way, really. Almost immediately I felt this was going to work."

Dvorak's concerts are a mix of the new and traditional folk, standards from the American songbook, gospel, country blues guitar and old-time banjo. Sometimes clients sing along or call out requests. Once he led a singing game that captivated ten children who mimed the motions to "She'll Be Comin' Around the Mountain."

"We had one client who is normally a very agitated and angry woman," recalls Pantry Manager Paula Berg. "The day Mark performed, she was calm. When I mentioned to the group that I hoped they were enjoying the music as much as I was, she said it made her happy! I believe Mark's music was a tonic to her soul."

Another day, a man at the very end of a long line spontaneously sat down at an upright piamo in the corner and belted out a jazz riff. The room burst into applause; he stood up, beamed and bowed.

"It was the spirit of the moment," Dvorak said. "It turned out to be a lovely thing."


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