Music is in the air at University of North Carolina Hospitals, thanks to a housekeeping staff that loves to sing.
The harmonies come courtesy of the UNC Hospitals Environmental Services Gospel Choir, led by housekeeping staffer and choir director Shawn Davis.
The choir, formed in 2014, has changed the perception of what the housekeeping team is at the hospital, Davis says. “Environmental services, we’re usually thought of as the cleanup crew, but we have a lot more to offer,” he says. “The choir helps show that their hearts are connected to the patients and that we provide patient-centered services, whether we’re singing or keeping healing places clean.”
Davis’ supervisor agrees that the choir is helping to remind other staff and patients that environmental services employees also are part of the patient care mission. “When we come into a patient’s rooms, the goal is not simply cleaning, the goal is also to engage with the patients, let them know we’re here for them,” says Orlando Reyes, UNC Hospitals’ associate director for environmental services. “All this singing’s been a great opportunity for our staff to do just that.”
Case in point — choir director Davis’ recent experience on the floor: “I was asked to visit with a patient who loves to sing. When I came to his room, I found out his favorite song is 'You Are My Sunshine,’ so we sang it,” Davis says. “It sounded so nice, we decided to record the song. I recorded it on my phone and he posted it to Facebook. It’s getting hundreds of likes and hundreds of shares. It was just a great, great blessing to be able to do this with him.
The choir came into being when department staff met to discuss how to kick their presence up a notch at the hospital’s annual multicultural fair. Latino members of environmental services already had performed a conga dance, but there was more diversity to show among the staff, Reyes says.
“The idea for a gospel choir was given and Shawn stepped up to volunteer to lead the choir,” he says. “About 25 employees met three times a week to rehearse, and the department bought $800 [worth] of Carolina Blue choir robes. We thought it was worth the investment, and it has been even better than we imagined.”
The choir has closed out the fair to wild applause for two years. “Without exaggeration, there was jumping and shouting and dancing and testifying in the hospital lobby, from the audience as well as the choir,” Davis says. “And now we’re called on often to go to hospital rooms, to do holiday Christmas carols. We sang the Star Spangled Banner at a University of North Carolina women’s basketball game, and more.”
Davis says the choir has raised morale for the entire staff. It comprises employees from both the first and second shifts — those who don’t get a chance to know each other or ever really talk at work. The choir bridges that gap.
Reyes is proud to say that the choir, originally mostly African American, and 100 percent environmental services employees, “is growing and bringing in people of different cultures and from different departments.”
“Shawn is a natural. He’s a people person and great at team-building,” Reyes says, adding that he could tell that when he first met Davis.
Davis relocated to North Carolina in 2014 from New York City, where he worked for the city’s transit system. Once he relocated, he took the job at UNC and enrolled in undergraduate classes at South University. His ultimate ambition is to attend UNC and to become a psychiatrist.
“I’ve always had an affinity for mental health care,” he says. “I think the choir work is helping me to prepare for that.”
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Davis and the choir members already are tackling psychologically tough jobs. “I work in the bone marrow transplant area; it’s sort of the patient’s last chance,” Davis says. “So, if they aren’t having the best of days, I try to brighten things up with my music when I’m cleaning their rooms, or when I’m called on to visit,” Davis says.
Small groups of other choir members do the same thing, he adds. “Music is universal, it brings you out of where you are, and to where you want to be.”