Near the end of Thursday night's rehearsal for Saturday's opening ceremonies of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, emcee Roger Leasor announced the Haitian Harmony children's choir with the same zeal he had earlier introduced acts such as Kentucky country star Wynonna Judd and Irish Tenor Ronan Tynan.
And they emerged ... slowly ... 24 Haitian children between ages 6 and 12, walking onto the stage past a 100-piece symphony orchestra, behind tenor Gregory Turay who, standing in for Tynan, had filled the outdoor stadium at the Kentucky Horse Park with his rendition of The Impossible Dream.
The children lined up behind him, ready to join on the chorus.
"I leaned in to listen to them, and some of them weren't singing," said Alltech global aquaculture director Jorge Arias. "They were just ... ." Arias dropped his jaw and looked around wide-eyed.
Less than 48 hours before that, the children were far from the spotlight.
They are students at the Centre Educatif l'Union des Coeurs in Ouanaminthe, Haiti, a four-room school with no electricity or running water on a cratered street in the center of the city.
They have come to the United States as part of a project conceived by Alltech founder Pearse Lyons. After the January earthquake that devastated the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, Lyons went to Haiti to see how he could help. He decided to set up a factory in the north of the country. Along with that, he wanted to help the school, and hearing the children sing inspired him to bring in University of Kentucky voice professor Everett McCorvey.
The idea was to start a music program at the school using UK students as teachers, with the aim of creating a choir that would perform during the Games and events beyond that.
During the summer, UK graduate students Eric Brown and Manuel Castillo traveled to Ouanaminthe to work with the kids.
"The environment is hard to do work in, and he's making a big effort to help the kids," Avelyne St. Hilaire, director of the school, said of Brown. She spoke in Spanish, with Arias translating for her.
Training the children, she said, was easy compared to securing passports and visas for them to come to the United States. Only 17 had original documentation of their Haitian citizenship, and even with that, the process for getting passports approved can take a long time.
St. Hilaire said the children cheered when the airplane lifted off the runway in Haiti. When they stopped in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to go through customs, they immediately saw what a different world they were in.
"There was this elevator they needed to go on, and they had no idea what to do," Arias says.
Friday afternoon, the children and their four chaperones from Haiti were at Southland Christian Church, which has provided accommodations for the duration of their stay in Lexington.
"Our pastor, Jon Weece, taught for four years in Haiti, so this church has a real heart for Haiti," church member Jim Potter said as children jumped rope, hopped on their beds and lined up for lemonade.
The children's schedules are busy over the next couple weeks with rehearsals, visits to area schools and performances such as the opening ceremonies and a concert to benefit the Haitian Harmony project with Irish music stars The Chieftains at the Singletary Center for the Arts.
"They're surprised at everything," St. Hilaire said. "They've never seen so many horses, or such big horses.
"Every day we're here is going to be a new surprise for them."
Reach Herald-Leader staff writer Rich Copley at (859) 231-3217 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3217.