WINDSOR TERRACE — Doing what you love in the comfort of your home is one thing, but doing it in a national talent show competition elevates that passion to a whole new level.
The Northwell Health Nurse Choir, made up of 18 local frontline nurses, knows that feeling extremely well after singing a mash-up of Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” and Ben King’s “Stand by Me” and receiving the highly desired Golden Buzzer on this season of America’s Got Talent. Acts who get the Golden Buzzer — which is pressed by individual celebrity judges after an audition is completed — secure their spots in the quarterfinals and are sent straight to the live shows.
Two of the choir members, Gaelle Clesca and Winnie Mele, have roots that stem back to The Mary Louis Academy in Jamaica Estates. The women did not know each other prior to joining the choir in 2020 but were thrilled upon discovering they both attended the all-girls high school.
“We didn’t even realize how we were connected until we started talking,” said Mele ’75, director of perioperative services at Plainview Hospital, who has been a nurse for 41 years.
“We were so excited and were jumping for joy,” said Clesca ’99, a pediatric nurse at the Cohen Children’s Medical Center, as she recalled the moment they met each other for the first time for in-person rehearsals in March.
“We were talking about all the similarities we have, like about the bus we took to go to school and all the pearls of wisdom that came from The Mary Louis Academy.”
Last year, Northwell Hospital sent out a mass email to all its 18,500 nurses, announcing the creation of a choir and gauging interest from those interested in auditioning. Fifty were chosen to sing around Thanksgiving time for a streamed benefit concert. After the new year, that number dwindled to 18.
“A lot of us put our joy in the things that we like to do in the background,” Mele said. “Even though we were in our homes with a phone, that choir at Thanksgiving was an opportunity we hadn’t had in a very long time.”
Reminiscing about what it was like to approach the Pasadena Convention Center, Clesca said she felt grateful. “I looked up to the sky and said, ‘Thank you, Jesus,’ ” she explained. “ ‘Thank you so much for creating this platform for us. I dedicate this performance and everything to my faith.’ ”
When the group finally walked across the stage and faced judges Simon Cowell, Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel, and Sofía Vergara, Mele said she felt confident. “I felt like we were ready,” she said, explaining they met a few times a week to rehearse in the weeks leading up to the audition. “Singing was the easy part once I got out there and heard the music.”
Once the group finished performing and heard the judges’ commentary, Mandel stood up from his chair, walking towards the Golden Buzzer that sits in the middle of the judges’ table.
“When I saw him get up, I kind of said to myself, ‘Oh my God, he’s moving towards the buzzer. This couldn’t possibly happen, right?’ ” Mele said.
Within mere seconds, confetti cannons went off and the nurses learned they were moving on to the live quarterfinals. “The Golden Buzzer meant so much more than just the actual performance,” Clesca said.
“This Golden Buzzer, for me, was like a voice for all the hurt and calamity that occurred during this pandemic, and for the families who lost people. It was a voice for the voiceless.”
“That’s what this choir is about — coming out of the darkness and looking for hope,” said Mele, echoing Clesca’s sentiments. “Hopefully our song is a beacon of hope that nurses and all people could look to and say, ‘We were in the worst of times and we’re looking forward to the best of times.’ ”
Clesca also hopes their performances will inspire other nurses who may be on the fence about pursuing music. “For any person out there who’s thinking about becoming a nurse and could be struggling between nursing or the arts, well, guess what?” she rhetorically asked. “You can still merge the two.”
While the choir is preparing to return to Hollywood later this summer, Mele says the chance to come back is enough for her. “We’re just happy to sing,” she said.
“It doesn’t even matter what it is because the opportunity to be together with this group is pretty special and powerful.”
Viewers can watch the Northwell Health Nurse Choir sing on America’s Got Talent when the live quarterfinals begin August 10.