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Gregory Branch

Kimberly Harris-Coates

Kimberly Harris-Coates,  a longtime member of Unified Voices, is shown at the 2019 MLK Jr. Commemoration. The joy of singing on the gospel choir helped get her through a difficult time in her life.

I started at Hopkins in 1991 as a temporary administrative secretary. I was restarting my career because I was laid off from my job working in an environmental lab. It was a difficult time in my life. But God placed me in that temporary position and from there I got hired full-time. Currently, I’m a manager in the Department of Psychiatry and work mostly with outpatient operations.

It was in 1993 when I went to orientation and met Sandy Johnson (Johnson was a highly regarded HR employee and chaplain who died suddenly in 2017). Sandy told the entire group about this gospel choir called Unified Voices that sang at different places like churches and schools, and at the annual Johns Hopkins Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration. She made it sound very exciting and told me ‘you will be blessed.' I went to that first rehearsal. It came at a very timely point my life  and have been a member ever since!

I sang in a church choir as a teen. It had been a long time since I sang with an organized group. I would sing songs on the radio, but this was huge. I immersed myself in Unified Voices. We practice every Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Hurd Hall (except for a hiatus over the summer).

Going in, I was very nervous. I didn't sing really loud. I just kind of paid attention and followed along. Everybody was very welcoming. The choir members are employees and members of the community, many different backgrounds and experiences.

When I started, I was a soprano. They listened to me and said ‘you’re an alto.’  I've always loved singing alto because the harmony is a little more challenging than the melody. Now, I am singing in the tenor section. In gospel, you get to belt a lot. And I could sing tenor all day long without getting hoarse.

I remember the director, Dr. Gregory Branch (a Johns Hopkins assistant professor of medicine and Baltimore County's Health Officer), called on me to sing a solo. I was nervous because I wasn’t use to singing solos, but it helped me to grow. I guess you can say in Unified Voices, I found my voice.

I had to stop singing for a couple of years because I was going to grad school. What keeps me coming back is that life has it ups and downs and you need family close when you’re going through things. The choir is my family;  it’s the one place I know that my spirit will get fed through song and I can hold on just a little while longer.

What brings me joy at Hopkins is the people that I work with. I have a best friend at work but there are other friends and we all help each other get through.

On a personal note, I have two children. My son is 32 and has special needs with mild retardation and Autistic Spectrum, and lives in a group home. He sings, recites poetry and also acts.  My daughter is 27 and back home with me. She attended the Baltimore School for the Arts. I’m proud of my children and am close with my family and friends. We often get together, travel and support one another.

I love Broadway shows and never knew that about myself before joining Unified Voices. Did you know UV does plays? I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate in some of them — Little Shop of Horrors, Dream Girls, and the Wiz, to name a few. I sing background and that’s the most fun I ever had in my life.  I loved it!  Any time I’m singing I am breathing and getting those endorphins going – it makes me happy.

I must say that Dr. Branch is the glue that keeps the choir together. He is so giving of his time, helps develop people and provides a platform for people to share their gifts. We have some very talented members and I have been blessed to be a part of it all.

Usually, all good things must come to an end, but Unified Voices hasn’t. The choir members are very supportive of each other and I have met lifelong friends there. Once you are in Unified Voices, you are forever a member.

Note: Unified Voices will celebrate its 25th anniversary on Sunday, May 19, at 5 p.m. in Turner Auditorium on the East Baltimore campus. See the flyer with details.

—As told to Janet Anderson, Marketing and Communications

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