Bekah S. McNeel

“The season of giving” may be a holiday trope at times, but the San Antonio Symphony’s generosity taps into something deeper than ordinary gift-giving. The SA Symphony gets Christmas.

For the last 24 holiday seasons, the San Antonio Symphony has been “caroling” to the critically ill, homeless and incarcerated.

Ask anyone in San Antonio’s cultural arts scene and they will tell you that the SA Symphony has a heart for the community, one of several arts organizations that make our city better.

Some San Antonians are aware of the Symphony’s powerhouse conductor, Sebastian Lang Lessing. Some know of the efforts to appeal to younger and broader audiences through ad campaigns and the Pops series.  But few know about the symphony’s Caroling Project.

It won’t fill seats in the Majestic Theater, which is exactly why it exists: There are people in San Antonio who cannot go to the Symphony, so the Symphony comes to them.

Musicians prepare for their holiday performance at Haven for Hope. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

This year, the Symphony has made musical stops at the Bexar County Jail, Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital, Methodist Children’s Hospital, The Rehabilitation Center of San Antonio, and Cyndi J. Krier Correctional Facility, all places where residents have limited access to holiday cheer, and certainly won’t be paying for a seat at the Holiday Pops concerts this weekend (tonight at the Majestic Theatre, 8 p.m.).

This is no publicity stunt.

Today, Iris Dimmick (my camerawoman for the day) and I were the only press in attendance when the carolers made a visit to Haven for Hope with an ensemble of violins, violas, trumpets, a trombone and bassoon. Included in the mobile orchestra were members of the Symphony, their students and friends. SA Symphony Interim President and CEO David Filner, a musician himself, joined the ranks with his viola.

The Symphony performing at the Haven For Hope dining hall. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The nonprofit Haven for Hope, started in 2006, is now a 15-building complex of housing, education, job training and behavioral health for local homeless men, women and children. The H4H has more than 900 residents. It’s a national model, placing San Antonio at or ahead of the curve in the treatment of homeless.

Filner was humble about the outreach project, saying simply, “We love doing this.”

Dawkins and David Filner
Principal Violist Dawkins and Interim President/CEO David Filner. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

He funneled all credit for the program to Allyson Dawkins, Principal Violist with the SA Symphony, who started the program with Greg Mulligan, former concertmaster of the San Antonio Symphony.

“It’s the most fun thing I do over the holidays,” Dawkins said, “It’s really special because it’s completely musician driven on a completely volunteer basis. It’s an effort from the heart.”

Dawkins has been pleased with the student response. As young musicians learn about the social power of music, some have begun their own outreach to hospitals and nursing homes. Those who participate with symphony mentors look forward to caroling every year, Dawkins said.

The friends and family represented on the stage stirred the warmth often associated with friends and family sharing holiday traditions, but there was something more. It reminded me of my favorite childhood Christmas special.

“Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” wails Charlie Brown in the beloved holiday cartoon, prompting Linus to share the story of the Nativity.

I can’t help but think that if Charlie Brown had been in the cafeteria at Haven for Hope yesterday, he would not have had to ask if anyone understood Christmas.

Cooks working fast to feed about 150 Haven for Hope residents.
Cooks working fast to feed about 150 Haven for Hope residents. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The concert at Haven for Hope took place during lunch in the facility’s dining hall. As the door opened and we were ushered into the large, industrial facility with SA Food Bank signs hanging over the doors, it was a surprising juxtaposition to the murmur of the symphonic warm-up; a sound so often associated with excitement and anticipation while sitting in a theatre chair on a night on the town.

And that is Christmas – if Linus was right. A long-awaited thing in an unlikely place.

The room filled and lunch was served to about 150 residents. After a program of classic carols, Mary Ellen Goree, Principal Second Violin with the SA Symphony, began taking requests.

Aside from one tongue-in-cheek request for the “The Simpsons” theme, the requests were granted one after another and met with applause.

Diane Brister dances with her granddaughter, Alexis. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

While the symphony played “Feliz Navidad,” Diane Brister danced with her granddaughter, Alexis, who graciously offered her teddy bear to others for a snuggle.

The event served as a reminder that season-ticket holders aren’t the only music lovers appreciate the quality of live, professional music.

Resident Aaron Osivnik requested Pachelbel’s Canon. The musicians obliged and played the piece from memory.

“They have a nice, clean sound. Their arrangements are really good, especially the one for ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,’” Osivnik said.

He then shouted another request for “O Holy Night,” his favorite carol.

“It’s not often that members of the community offer to bring performances here,” said Evita Mendiola, Haven for Hope Associate VP of Community and External Relations, “I know the residents love it.”

YouTube video

One resident shouted out a request for “Amazing Grace.” It’s not a holiday song, but the musicians obliged, and when they were done, someone shouted, “again!”

Amazing grace. That’s the part of the Christmas Story that the Symphony brings each year to Haven for Hope and all their caroling locations. More than simply giving, the carols played so beautifully remind us why we give. It’s the most classic Christmas Story: There was a King in a manger. Heaven’s best was not reserved for those who could pay, rather a gift for those who could not.

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.