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Crystal Lake Strikers perform with Kanye West

But to keep the beat, Crystal Lake Strikers seek new home

Crystal Lake Strikers among a group who performed at Kanye West's  "Sunday Service" at Northerly Island in Chicago Sunday.
Crystal Lake Strikers among a group who performed at Kanye West's "Sunday Service" at Northerly Island in Chicago Sunday.

With less than 24 hours of notice, a few local drummers found themselves early Sunday at Northerly Island surrounded by thousands of people, performing live with Kanye West and Chance the Rapper at “Sunday Service.”

“It was stressful in the moment and one of the most surreal things I have ever done in my entire life,” said Collin Wittlich, 19, of Algonquin. Wittlich is a member of the Crystal Lake Strikers drumline, who were contacted late Saturday afternoon by West’s “people” and given new music to learn for their performance at
9 a.m. Sunday.

Wittlich described the event as “amazing.”

The sophomore at DePaul University in Chicago said the whole experience “happened overnight.”

Within a few hours, he learned new music, made his way to Northerly Island by 6 a.m., and by 9 a.m. found himself in the center of thousands of people, performing and listening to “amazing” gospel singers and being so close to West and Chance the Rapper he could see their pores.

“Some of my friends were there and we have been talking about it since it happened,” he said. “We aren’t even sure it did happen. It was a kind of a beautiful thing. Free concert, kids standing around singing gospel with the choir and Kanye ... a very unifying experience. It felt like everyone was there to have fun. …  It is so hard to describe it in words, I teared up, a beautiful thing to behold and be a part of.”

The event is part of West’s tour to various cities hosting “Sunday Service.” Chance the Rapper was a surprise guest at the Chicago performance.

Megan Janis, 18, of Crystal Lake, who currently is attending Columbia College studying music composition and production, described the event as “surreal.”

“It was super cool, amazing,” she said. “People all around you. It’s a different experience than being on stage and having so much space. Having everybody around you is like crazy.”

At one point, Janis said, West ran right past her and then in another moment Chance the Rapper snuck on stage and surprised the crowd.

As all the performers left the stage, leaving the band and the drumline alone playing “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” Janis questioned her reality.

“It was super cool, super fun,” she said. “Then …  backstage afterward, we were like ‘Did we really just do that? That was crazy.’ ”

Dale Hallerberg, a member of the board of directors of Strikers Kingpins drumline, a group for special needs children and adults, described the event as “really passionate and intense.”

He said, at the free open-air concert, people were so close some were touching the drums.

“It felt like a [church] service, but there were no readings,” Hallerberg said. “We were surrounded by three, four rows of choir, great gospel singers.”

Sunday’s drumline also included members of the Chicago Bears Drumline.

The Crystal Lake Strikers, of which Wittlich and Janis are longtime members, was founded 11 years ago by Crystal Lake Mayor Aaron Shepley, Brett Hopkins and Thomas Kundmann.

Initially founded as a hobby, today Strikers involves more. The group, run by all volunteers, has grown to teach drums and percussion, arrange parades, performances and competition opportunities for hundreds of teens and adults, some with special needs. Money earned through performances is generated back into the program.

Can the drummers keep the beat?

After renting space at 100 S. Main St. in Crystal Lake for the past few years, the group is looking for a new home. The site where they have kept their equipment, instruments and held rehearsals has been taken over by Willow Creek Church. Although the church has let them stay in the building the past two years, it is now time to move.

To find a new home “would be absolutely wonderful,” Hopkins said. “We have expanded our offerings to five different student programs, from a competitive drumline to a competitive color guard, to the special needs groups to our middle school girls-only drumline. We have done all of this because our leadership says ‘Yes,’ … that is our instinct to say ‘Yes.’ ”

The perfect home would be about 15,000 square feet, with 2,000 square feet for storage, a basketball-type space with high ceilings, as well as five rooms that could fit up to 20 students to rehearse in.

The organizers of Strikers are hopeful to be able to continue saying “yes” to those who want to participate. Hopkins noted the “Sunday Service” as well as other events occurring throughout the year, including performances at the Raue Center for the Arts, the Chicago Magnificent Mile Parade and a special performance at this year’s Thanksgiving Day parade in Chicago. But they also turn to many upcoming events and competitions that they need to prepare for and the difficulty of that when they have no home.

“A portion of me is happy we have had a lot of success with so many students involved and that it keeps growing,” Hopkins said. “But right about now, it makes me feel anxious because we want to make sure we have a spot for these kids to practice and perform.”

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