Shaelaurel, formerly of Boca Raton, Performs at the Florida Renaissance Festival
An inner voice told Andrew Witchger that nothing was more important than spending time with his family -- not money, or job security, or prestige, or property. Nothing.
So, with his wife's hearty approval, he chucked it all.
He quit his job, which had earned him an esteemed position in the community, accolades and awards. He and his wife, Janet, sold their Boca Raton home, the one with three bedrooms and a pool in a desirable neighborhood.
They packed up their four children, moved into a 35-foot RV, and hit the road. Their plan: well, they didn't have one exactly. They figured they would try to make a living as street performers, of all things.
Their parents thought they were nuts. Their children were delighted.
That was five years ago. They're still driving around the country in that same RV, with no address to call their own. That's two adults and four children, ages 12 to 17, living in a space of maybe 350 square feet. For five years.
The kids haven't killed each other. They actually like each other as much, if not more than when the adventure began.Their family music act, Shaelaurel, has achieved a certain level of success. Today, the band has bookings up to a year in advance. They'll have a concert in Europe later this year. They are hoping one day to play in Australia, even Asia.
Shaelaurel performs four times per day at the Florida Renaissance Festival on weekends throughout February.The family works to keep their plans modest; they have turned away agents and producers whose go-go-go vision of success might infringe on the family lifestyle that has become so precious to them.
"We always have to go back to, 'Why are we doing this?' Why are we doing this?'" Andrew Witchger says. He admits a little sheepishly he sometimes needs help staying grounded when it comes to the band. "My wife is wonderful in that way because it is part of her personality."
The Witchgers were living what many might consider the good life in South Florida, something akin to the American Dream. Andrew, 41, was the music director St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Boca Raton, where he led choirs for preschoolers, elementary children, teenagers and adults. He loved the job. He loved connecting with people, drawing children deeper into the church through music. In 2000, Witchger won the Clyde Fyfe Award for artistic development and community service from the Palm Beach County Cultural Council.
But the church was large, and the job was all-consuming, with up to a dozen services on weekends. He hardly saw his children, was barely a part of their lives. He and his wife decided to start homeschooling their children so that they could spend more time together as a family. Janet, 39, a Boston University graduate with a degree in economics, began teaching the children the Suzuki violin method, among other things.
Tuesday evenings after choir practice was often family time at Daniel O'Connell's Irish Pub in Boca Raton. One night, son Andy played fiddle. Another evening, daughter Jessica joined him. Soon the family had a regular gig playing Celtic, folk and bluegrass music at the pub. Janet filled in the rhythm section, transferring what she learned from the Suzuki method to the bass fiddle.
Andrew, a classically trained pianist who had studied at the Conservatoire de Paris, became intrigued with this music his wife and children had taken up, and joined in. Invitations to perform multiplied. And that's how they decided to hit the road.The Witchgers went to California with a guitar, drums, bass fiddle, violins, mandolin, bagpipes, banjo, harp and the bodhran, an Irish hand drum. They started as buskers, the British word for musicians who play in public for tips.
"It's what we decided to do for us," Andrew says. "It's all about choices. The choices you make can have a profound effect."He knows it sounds a little wacky. Maybe the path they chose is not for everybody. But maybe more people should be impelled to seek their own path.
"We really would like to encourage families to just be families. That's the most important thing," Witchger says. "I wonder why we didn't do it sooner. I thank God every day that we are able to do this, that we are able to be together and touch so many different people. These are really precious years for me and for my family."
They have learned to laugh together when things don't go quite right, like when they had to spend this past Christmas parked in an RV repair bay. "There's always somebody, out of the the six of us, who can look at things and say, 'You know, this really is funny,'" Witchger says.
The Witchgers try to take the time to appreciate small gifts and blessings. A hike in the woods. Reading Scripture together. A meal enjoyed with friends. A science museum in a new town. Libraries. Sunsets. "The joie de vivre is tremendous, living in the moment," Witchger says.
The one big mystery would seem to be how Andrew and Janet manage to keep peace among their children as they drive all over the country, when most parents can hardly keep their kids from fighting in the backseat when they drive to the grocery store.
One answer is structure: the kids have plenty to keep them busy, with school work, individual music practice and rehearsals. The other part of the answer, strangely enough, is in the close quarters.
"There is no place to run. Nobody wants to live in an environment where we are at each other's throats. You have to work things out. You get tighter and tighter," Witchger says. "We like to think of each other as sandpaper, smoothing out each others' rough edges."
Space, the Witchgers have discovered, does not equal peace. "The very fact of having separate space seems to separate everybody. You get, 'This is my time, this is my space, this is my this, this is my that.' In close quarters, that can't happen. There has to be a lot of give and take. You have to learn to live with each other."
But is there any place the Witchger children consider home? Witchger hesitates before rattling off half a dozen places around the country, including South Florida, where the family spends time during the annual Renaissance Festival, to Vero Beach, where Janet's parents live, to Michigan, where Andrew has family.
Home it turns out, has very little to do with geography. "Home," he says, "is where friends and family are."Copyright © 2015, CT Now