MUSKEGON, MI – Ella Cole describes music as her happy place.
When the 17-year-old sings, whether in front of an audience or alone, she says, all her troubles just seem to melt away, even in her darkest moments.
“I’ve been through a lot of hard times,” she said. “When I sing, I think it’s a kind of sanctuary. Imagine you’re cold and crying – and then you start singing and it’s just so magical. Like, everything goes away. You are sure. You are quiet. It’s just perfect.”
Singing is a coping mechanism for Cole as she slowly loses her sight, she said. The teenager suffers from an untreatable condition called Optic Atrophy, which is slowly reducing her field of vision. She has already lost sight in one eye and could become completely blind in both eyes any day now.
Next week Cole will have the unique opportunity to see thousands of viewers as she sings at the top of a 20 meter tree structure. Cole, a senior at Mona Shores, was selected as the coveted Angel for the high school’s annual Singing Christmas Tree performance this year.
It’s a sight she will never forget before losing her sight forever.
Cole has been watching the singing Christmas tree performance with her mother since she was a child. To be selected as this year’s “Angel” is an incredible honor, Cole said.
“I first saw the singing Christmas tree when I was six or seven years old,” she said. “My mum took me there – she was originally there too – and I fell in love with her. I remember the first night I was ever on I said, ‘I’m going to be the angel. I will be that.'”
TIED TOGETHER: “America’s Greatest” singing Christmas tree is coming soon to Muskegon’s historic Frauenthal Center
Each year, Mona Shores Choir Director Shawn Lawton selects the student who will be the coveted “angel” of the singing Christmas tree. The only requirement is that the student is a senior in the choir and represents the choral program in a unique way.
Cole did just that, so she was definitely a good fit for the role, Lawton explained.
“She just loves to sing,” Lawton said. “When she sings, it comes absolutely from the heart every time. She sings with a lot of passion and it’s obviously something she loves.”
The choir director described Cole as passionate and ambitious – she never takes no for an answer, he said. She auditioned countless times for a role she didn’t get, but that didn’t stop her from trying the next opportunity, Lawton explained.
“I know many times that she was frustrated and wanted to give up,” he said. “But she didn’t.”
Although Cole has limited vision, Lawton said her condition never stops her from doing what she sets out to do. There are days when the choirmaster forgets that she even has optic nerve dystrophy just because she’s dealing with it so well.
“When I do a larger copy of sheet music (for Cole), they’ll remind you because it has to be larger sizes of everything,” Lawton said. “But on a day-to-day basis, she doesn’t seem any different than any other kid.”
Cole has struggled with her vision her entire life. She first had eye surgery when she was 12 months old, she said. In fifth grade she lost all vision in her left eye and doctors diagnosed her with optic nerve atrophy.
Now she only has limited vision in her right eye. She said she can vaguely see what people look like — for example, she can see their hair color and how tall they are, but she can’t see the details of their faces.
Cole prepares for the day when she goes completely blind, which can happen at any time. She is learning Braille as well as life skills like cooking and how to do her hair and makeup. She also knows how to use a cane, which she has to use after sundown because she can’t see in the dark, she said.
“With less vision and no vision, learning how to do these things is vital and important,” she said. “It’s hard. But I’m not giving up.”
Loss of sight is an obstacle that can easily cause a person to fall. But Cole keeps her head up and lives on bravely – partly because she wants to set a good example for her 9-year-old sister Nora.
“She’s really my reason to fight,” Cole said of her youngest sister. “She has a fire in her that I don’t have and she inspires me to be a better person.”
After graduating from Mona Shores, Cole plans to go to New York City to graduate from the American Musical Dramatic Arts Academy, where she received a $14,000 scholarship.
Cole will take the stage with more than 160 of her classmates for five performances of the Mona Shores Singing Christmas Tree beginning Wednesday, November 30th. There are daily 7pm shows on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday and a 3am show on Saturday.
Tickets are $15 or $18 and can be purchased here or at the Frauenthal Center box office.
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