Michigan choir student who is going blind will be this year’s ‘Angel’ on America’s tallest Singing Christmas – MLive.com


Choir student with optic nerve atrophy to be 'angel' on singing Christmas tree
MUSKEGON, MI – Ella Cole describes music as her happy place.
When the 17-year-old sings – whether it’s in front of an audience or by herself – she says all her troubles seem to just melt away, even in her darkest moments.
“I’ve been through a lot of hard times,” she said. “When I sing, it’s kind of like a shelter, I guess. Imagine yourself cold and you’re crying – and then you start singing and it’s just so magical. Like, everything goes away. You’re safe. You’re calm. It’s just perfect.”
Singing is a coping mechanism for Cole as she slowly loses her eyesight, she said. The teen has an untreatable condition called optic nerve atrophy, which slowly reduces her field of vision. She has already lost all sight in one eye, and she could go fully blind in both eyes any day now.
Next week, Cole will have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to look out at crowds of thousands of viewers as she sings at the very top of a 67-foot tree structure. Cole, a senior at Mona Shores, was picked as this year’s coveted “Angel” for the high school’s annual Singing Christmas Tree performance.
It’s a sight that she will never forget before she loses her vision for good.
Cole has been watching the singing Christmas tree performance with her mom ever since she was a young kid. Being selected as this year’s “angel” was an incredible honor, Cole said.
“I first saw the singing Christmas tree when I was in six or seven years old,” she said. “My mom took me to it – she was originally in it, too – and I fell in love with it. I remember saying the first night I ever went, ‘I’m going to be the angel. That’s going to be me.’”
RELATED: ‘America’s Tallest’ Singing Christmas Tree coming soon to Muskegon’s historic Frauenthal Center
Each year, Mona Shores choir director Shawn Lawton picks 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 that they represent the choir program in a unique way.
Cole has done exactly that, so she was a clear fit for the role, Lawton explained.
“She just loves to sing,” Lawton said. “When she sings, it’s just absolutely from the heart every single time. She sings with a lot of passion and it’s obviously something she loves.”
The choir director described Cole as passionate and driven – she never takes no for an answer, he said. There have been countless times when she auditioned for a role that she did not get, but she hasn’t let that stop her from trying out for the next opportunity, Lawton explained.
“There are many times I know she was frustrated and wanted to give up,” he said. “But she didn’t.”
Despite having limited eyesight, Cole never lets her condition stop her from doing what she sets her mind to, Lawton said. There are some days when the choir director forgets that she even has optic nerve atrophy, just because she manages it so well.
“When I’m making a larger-sized copy of sheet music (for Cole), you’re reminded of it, because she has to have larger sizes of everything,” Lawton said. “But on a day-to-day basis, she doesn’t seem any different than any other child.”
Cole has struggled with her vision for her entire life. She first had surgery on her eyes 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 has only limited vision remaining in her right eye. She said she can vaguely make out 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 face.
Cole is preparing for the day that she becomes fully blind, which could 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 sunset because she can’t see in the dark, she said.
“With less vision and going into no vision, learning how to do those things is vital and important,” she said. “It’s hard. But I don’t give up.”
Losing one’s eyesight is an obstacle that could easily bring a person down. But Cole keeps her head up and continues to live courageously – in part, because she wants to set a good example for her 9-year-old sister, Nora.
“She really is my reason for fighting,” Cole said of her youngest sister. “She’s got a fire in her that I don’t have, and she inspires me to be a better person.”
After she graduates from Mona Shores, Cole is planning to go to New York City to earn a degree at the American Musical Dramatic Arts Academy, where she has 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, starting Wednesday, Nov. 30. There are daily 7 p.m. shows on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, as well as a 3 p.m. show on Saturday.
Tickets are $15 or $18 and can be purchased here or through the Frauenthal Center Box Office.
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