By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — The members of Ladies First, the 81-singer-strong, girls-only vocal group at Niskayuna High School, streamed off the bus at the Niskayuna Senior Center on Thursday, Dec. 4, to make a very special delivery.
As has been tradition for more than a decade, the young women performed a private concert for Niskayuna’s senior citizens. The students sang songs that ranged from classical to modern, followed by a holiday sing-along including Christmas carols and Hanukkah tunes.
After the concert, as is also tradition, the young performers passed out colorful holiday gifts they shopped for and purchased themselves.
“They all look so exuberant and so happy,” senior center member Roberta VanDerwerken said after the performance, holding three colorful gifts in her lap.
She peered into a gift bag and was delighted to discover a set of holiday-printed dishes for dipping sauces. She saved the other two presents for later.
VanDerwerken moved from Florida to Schenectady a few months ago to be closer to family and friends, and said the senior center has been a great place to socialize. A musician herself, she said she thoroughly enjoyed the performance, and joined in enthusiastically with the carols at the end.
“I love to sing,” she said.
Irene deSoyza attended the performance with her husband, Sumitte. Her smile glowed as she clapped along throughout the show.
“It brings me back,” said deSoyza, who was a music teacher in her native Sri Lanka for 20 years before moving to Schenectady and becoming a special educator.
Although she grew up abroad, deSoyza said her education in Sri Lanka was British, so English Christmas carols bring back fond memories of her childhood.
“We learned everything in English,” she said.
Senior center coordinator Rosemarie Mullaney said the tradition is very important to the center’s members. Three years ago, when the high school wasn’t able to fund a bus to bring the singers to the seniors, Mullaney arranged for the seniors to meet and travel to the high school on the town’s bus, instead.
Students treasure the tradition, as well. Amy Buhrmaster has participated in the holiday concert since she was a freshman. This year was her fourth and final concert for the seniors.
“We always love it because we don’t necessarily know who’s sitting in the audience,” she said. “We don’t know if they have someone to spend time with over the holiday.
Buhrmaster said they’re also careful not to focus too heavily on Christmas songs, so that people of other faiths also can enjoy the show.
“When we go and sing, we make sure to include a large variety of songs, because you don’t know what everybody celebrates,” she said. “Maybe they don’t celebrate anything, but you want them to feel loved. That’s what the holidays are about.”
During a previous year, Buhrmaster said she was especially affected by a woman who came to the concert halfway through. When it ended, she was crying.
“Apparently she had just lost her husband,” Buhrmaster said. “She said it was the most beautiful thing she’d heard in a long time.”
The back-and-forth between students and seniors is what makes the performance truly special.
The attendees are more than an audience; they’re truly part of the tradition.
“I love when we’re singing and they mouth the words that they know,” Buhrmaster said. “Their faces just light up.”
Once she leaves for college next year, Buhrmaster said she’ll miss the musical tradition that brings students and senior citizens together.
“I’m going to miss everything about Ladies First, and that’s definitely part of it,” she said.
For coordinator Mullaney, the annual holiday performance is more than just work; it’s nostalgic, too. From 2003-07, before she worked at the senior center, Mullaney would come to the concert to watch her eldest daughter sing with the group.
Mullaney said the event never fails to lift the seniors’ spirits.
“They are good-hearted girls,” she said. “The seniors just appreciate that.”