by Marc and Julie Anderson
ATCHISON — “Be still my heart,” read Andrea Verbanic’s Facebook page.
And you’ll never guess why.
On Sept. 20, the 17 members of St. Benedict School’s middle school choir, along with its director, walked three blocks to the home of longtime Catholic educator and community member Mary Van Dyke, who is gravely ill. With sheet music, music stands and a guitar in hand, the group set up outside her bedroom window and proceeded to serenade her.
It was a gesture that touched Van Dyke’s family members, many of whom were gathered in the room, including Van Dyke’s daughter Andrea Verbanic.
It’s what drove Verbanic to write on her Facebook page. And she followed up “Be still my heart” with this:
“Students from St. Benedict Catholic School serenaded my mom outside her window as she’s dying from ovarian cancer. Cancer is bad, but people are good!”
Verbanic also posted a short video of the miniconcert. The video and comments were shared more than 100 times within just a few hours.
In fact, school principal Diane Liebsch said her phone lit up within minutes after the students left Van Dyke’s house. Liebsch said she had no idea the gesture would mean so much.
The idea came to Liebsch sitting in a meeting one day, in which St. Benedict staff members were discussing what they could do to express their love and support for Van Dyke.
“Mary always said she loves to be at Mass when our kids are singing,” said Liebsch.
She then approached choir director Julie Underwood with the idea of singing for Van Dyke during a class period.
“ [Julie] has a special gift herself of helping kids see the value of such acts,” said Liebsch. “Kids are so easy to motivate. They want to be compassionate.”
Liebsch was soon proven right.
“The students seemed superinterested at the prospect of singing for someone at their house,” said Underwood.
As the group worked to find just the right songs, Liebsch decided not to schedule a formal time with Van Dyke. Rather, she waited until the choir was ready and called Van Dyke’s daughter minutes before the group set off for the house.
Verbanic opened her mother’s window to the group singing “Count On Me,” by Bruno Mars, “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)” by Matt Redman, and “Mighty To Save” by Ben Fielding and Reuben Morgan.
Liebsch said it’s easy to see why the students chose those three songs, based on their lyrics.
For example, “Count On Me” speaks about friendship and contains these lines:
If you tossin’ and you’re turnin’ and you just can’t fall asleep
I’ll sing a song
And if you ever forget how much you really mean to me
Every day I will
The second song, “Mighty To Save,” sung often at school Masses, recalls Christ’s resurrection:
“My God is mighty to save
He is mighty to save
Forever author of salvation
He rose and conquered the grave
Jesus conquered the grave.”
It was the last song though — “10,000 Reasons” — that brought more than a few of those there to tears. Near the end of the song, the lyrics say:
“And on that day when my strength is failing
The end draws near and my time has come
Still my soul will sing your praise unending
Ten thousand years and then forevermore.
Amid the tears, however, there were smiles all around — including on the faces of the Van Dyke family, the faculty and parents, and, most of all, the students.
“[The students] came to class the next day excited from sharing the news with parents,” said Underwood.
“Many students shared that their parents were happy to hear what we were doing and the excitement just started to build,” she added.
Eighth-grader Annika Schuele confessed to having suffered a few nerves at first, but she was able to accompany the choir on guitar for “Count on Me.”
“It was really cool because we were able to make someone happy by singing a song,” said Schuele, adding that it felt good to be able to give back to someone.
Liebsch said she is extremely proud of the students.
“It’s the small things that have the biggest impact,” she said. “One small act ripples out in so many directions.”
The act did, indeed, ripple throughout the school later that day. At the students’ suggestion, the sixth-grade class prayed the rosary together after school for the mother of a classmate just starting chemo treatments.
“Children are naturally compassionate,” said Liebsch. “I’m grateful that we provide avenues for them to show this compassion.”