A program aimed at helping mothers who are in prison connect with their kids is called the Lullaby Project. Professional musicians work with inmates at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River to write songs for the inmate’s children then the musicians record them onto a CD.
When the program began about two months ago, Shawn Muese, an inmate at Hiland, sat down with musician Hilary Morgan. Muese carried a booklet she had filled with details about her seven kids and a letter addressed to them. She was ready to write them a lullaby – or so she thought.
“She actually came and had already written something,” Morgan recalled. “And she said, ‘This is the song.’ And I knew that this wasn’t the song, because it didn’t have her heart in it.”
Morgan said she tried to tease more out of Muese as they sat together, looking at photos of Muese’s kids and thought about the words they wanted to use. Muese was impressed by Morgan’s ability to connect to her feelings.
“It was crazy because she could tell things I didn’t like just by my facial expressions, ‘Oh you didn’t like it. Okay, next.’”
During the five-hour-long session, they wrote about the first moments Muese spent with her children and how sorry she was to be away from them.
The goal of the Lullaby Project is to help mothers who are struggling to connect with their children. It was developed by the Carnegie Foundation about 8 years ago. Musicians have worked with teen mothers and women in homeless shelters and prisons. This is the first time it’s been done in Alaska. The project has three short phases – writing the songs, recording in a professional studio, then coming together to share them.
While writing, Morgan and Muese were having trouble thinking of the music behind the words, so Morgan asked Muese to sing the lullabies of her childhood.
“So she sings me this song and it’s in Samoan, and I’m like that doesn’t help. So I said, ‘That’s great. Did they sing any other songs?’ And she sings another song in Samoan, and a light bulb went on. I said, ‘Do your kids speak Samoan at home?’ She said, ‘Yeah, they do.’ ‘Do you want to write this in Samoan? And she said, ‘Can we do that?’”
After their writing session, Morgan joined with a local Samoan choir to record the piece. When Muese sat with the other project participants to listen to the song for the first time, she erupted in sobs. After the song ended, she tossed her arms around Morgan.
“You sound so awesome,” she said while choking on tears. “They would never think you’re white!”
Muese knows the song won’t make up for the past, but she hopes it helps rebuild her relationship with her kids.
“What I’m hoping to get out of this is restoration, and I want to be able to see my kids. It’s going on three years I haven’t seen my kids.”
She said the song and the words in Samoan also give her pride in her culture. “The language is so beautiful. And just one line? It has a lot of meaning and that’s why I love my culture. I love my language. You can just say one word in my language and it means a lot of things. I came in here all sad, but when I heard that, it’s like angels from heaven.”
She translated the words in the chorus as “angels from above, precious to my heart.”
“And that’s what I believe in. My kids are angels from above. God gave me my kids as precious angels,” she paused. “I know I’m gonna get my angels back, I just gotta do me right now.”
All of the lullabies will be performed by the musicians and some of the inmates during a public concert at Hiland Mountain on September 24 and will be available on a CD. The funds go straight back into the project through the nonprofit Keys To Life so another group of women can also write their children a lullaby.