Photo by Jeannie Frey Rhodes

Women with a Cause 2018: Jena Vangjel

Cause: Music for the homeless

Working in Los Angeles with a nonprofit called Street Symphony, classical trumpeter Jena Vangjel once found herself observing a professional vocal group perform in a women’s prison.

“I’m sitting there, thinking, ‘Wow, what a charitable, wonderful thing they have done for these poor women,’” remembers Vangjel. At the end, one of the inmates stood, thanked them for coming, and said they had their own choir and would like to sing something for their guests. “By the end, tears were streaming, because these women had given us all such a gift.”

Today, Vangjel is working to establish an initiative like Street Symphony’s—to bring high-quality classical music to underserved populations—in Baton Rouge. “It’s about bringing two different communities together to share something universal,” she says. “There’s this awesome exchange that happens.”

Through a grant from the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge, Vangjel is organizing a year of monthly classical music performances for the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless, which serves homeless populations in seven Louisiana parishes. Along with an upcoming brass ensemble Christmas carol celebration later this month, the series has included performances from the Michael Foster Project and the Lagniappe Trio.

“I’m very passionate about the idea of engaging with this community,” she says. “I want to say: Here, music has brought us all together. Now that we’re together, how can we get to know each other? Can we improve each other’s lives?”

Vangjel has been playing the trumpet since she was a child and has a bachelor’s degree in trumpet performance from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a master’s from The Colburn School. She moved to Baton Rouge in 2016 when her husband, Matthew Vangjel, accepted a position teaching trumpet at LSU.

“When I came to Baton Rouge, I knew I wanted to continue working with underprivileged populations through music,” she says. “I just needed to find where it was most needed.”

Alongside her work as a freelance performer, she currently works as an arts educator, teaching classes at the Greenville Alternative Middle School and the East Baton Rouge Parish Housing Authority. This past summer, she also participated in an outreach initiative in three Japanese cities—performing for still-displaced victims from the country’s 2011 tsunami.

In determining which community to focus her attention on with the Arts Council grant, Vangjel says that the homeless population felt a natural fit. “Homeless people are so often overlooked,” she says. “People don’t always want to hear their stories, or even acknowledge that they are still people.”

It’s not just about bringing them classical music, she explains, but about remembering that we all belong to each other. “Everyone’s humanity is tied up in everyone else’s humanity. And sometimes, I just feel called to listen.”


How long have you been involved?
I’ve been involved in music performances for communities for many years now, but this specific project is only a few months old!
What do you love about the volunteer efforts that you do?
I love that music can really bring people together––I love remembering that music is part of who we are and part of what makes us human.
How is your cause making a difference?
I hope that the music that is performed heals both listener and performer, and that it acts as a catalyst for bringing people together to broaden their understanding of one another’s lives.
What is something we don’t know about your cause?
What I am doing wouldn’t even begin to be possible without the people who work at Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless day in and day out. Their team does amazing, inspiring work every single day.