An unusually warm summer night in Seattle in 2009 would forever change the lives of countless St. Louisans. A man trespassed through an open window of the residence St. Louis native Teresa Butz shared with her fiancée, Jennifer Hopper. The intruder sexually assaulted and stabbed the women, eventually killing Butz.
Back in St. Louis, news of the tragedy shocked and devastated Butz’s family and friends. In honor of Butz and all sexual violence victims and survivors, her lifelong friends, Rachel Ebeling and Jean Fox, decided to act.
At Butz’s funeral, moving performances from family and friends, including her brother, Tony Award-winning Broadway star Norbert Leo Butz, and her partner, Hopper, a Boston Conservatory-trained vocalist, inspired the pair to co-found The Angel Band Project. The group, composed of professional musicians from across the country and band leaders who loved Butz, uses music to promote healing, raise awareness and create positive social change for survivors of sexual violence. “We want to break the silence through the power of music,” Ebeling notes. “Music has a way of changing minds and hearts.”
So the band recorded the CD, Take You With Me, featuring original and cover tracks that span the range of folk to spiritual songs and even punk music. “The title track expresses how you’re still with me when you’re gone,” Ebeling explains.
And the band is certainly taking Butz with them on their journey around the country. During live performances and speaking engagements, The Angel Band Project shares Butz’s story in an effort to give a voice to victims and survivors of sexual violence. The group believes its message is the strongest in a live-music setting. “When you experience that live connection with survivors and others who love them, it resonates with people,” Ebeling says.
And it encourages others suffering in silence to speak up, she continues. “People don’t talk about it.” According to the nonprofit, 57 percent of sexual assaults go unreported and 97 percent of rapists will never spend a day in jail. “There have been college students who have come up to us after an event and they were able to vocalize their experience for the first time because of The Angel Band Project,” Ebeling recalls. “It’s an amazing feeling when you have this dream of helping people—and you do.”
The nonprofit hopes to reach even more sexual violence survivors, witnesses and their loved ones through a music therapy program, set to launch next spring with the help of music therapists at Maryville University and clinical therapists at Safe Connections. “Music was the collective thing that helped us heal. And we thought we could use it to help heal other people,” Ebeling says.
Through the nonprofit’s impact, Butz’s memory—her laughter and larger-than-life personality—lives on. “When those you love are gone, you always hope their lives will continue to affect people,” Ebeling says. “Teresa gave us a gift. Her spirit is enabling us to do this.”
For more information about The Angel Band Project, call 223-1630 or visit angelbandproject.org.
Volunteer Spotlight: Ellen Hunter
Ellen Hunter says The Angel Band Project started as a remembrance of her close friend, Teresa Butz, and quickly grew into a movement of hope and healing through music for countless people.
As the nonprofit’s board secretary and development coordinator, Hunter helps get the word out about sexual violence through planning speaking events and awareness concerts. “Awareness in No. 1,” she says. “We want to enlighten people that there are other ways to heal from a horrific event like that.”
The Angel Band Project can play a key role in that healing journey, Hunter notes. “We want to help sexual violence survivors heal through the music. We would love for our music to make a difference.”
And the shows certainly seem to be making an impact, with a recent sold-out St. Louis performance sparking a second show the following night. During the powerful concerts featuring spiritual to soul music, Norbert Leo Butz’s Tony Award-winning voice and charisma take center stage. Surrounding him are Jennifer Hopper, who solos on emotional ballads, and rhythm and percussion sections of professional musicians feeling each note and moving to every beat. And the talented musicians ensure the audience becomes involved with the live show, encouraging them to dance and sing along. Through song and speech, Teresa Butz’s story is shared during the concerts to promote sexual violence awareness and healing.
Hunter hopes the group’s new music therapy program that is currently in development also will change the lives of sexual violence survivors. Whether the project will take the shape of group or one-on-one therapy with a six-week songwriting workshop or a series of jam sessions, Hunter believes survivors will take comfort in listening to, singing or writing music during the program, set to start next spring. “We want to help anyone going through any type of trauma,” she notes.
Sexual violence is not only a woman’s issue, it affects the whole family, Hunter adds. “There are kids who have witnessed their mothers being raped. It is not just the people who went through it, but others around them.” She stresses there is no time limit when it comes to the healing process. “People live with it their whole life. This type of therapy is never-ending. We can only hope to help them find healing.”
And Hunter always encourages more people to join the band and grow its reach. By simply attending a show, you’re in—at the end of each concert, the group is sure to let the audience members know, they’re ‘in the band.’