It was not quite a surprise concert. The staff at Hope for Tomorrow had at least a few days to throw the event together after learning 77 talented teens from a South Carolina choir had made room on their busy national tour to stop in Aurora. For 25 years, the Mirror Image singers from First Baptist Church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, have been doing this cross-country "Thrive" tour promoting a Christian message of hope and redemption. Usually the ministry — which comes to the Chicago area every four years — performs in correctional facilities, said Thrive music director Steve Skinner. But because a stop at the Illinois Youth Correctional Center in St. Charles had to be canceled on Tuesday evening, the kids found themselves with an unexpected free night. That, in turn, gave them this opportunity to visit Hope for Tomorrow's campus on Lake Street in Aurora and bring that message to the homeless veterans living there, as well as those in the organization's other three houses struggling with mental illness or addictions. When that duo of buses brimming with students and chaperons arrived to find they would be performing on a lush green lawn instead of inside a correctional facility — the tour had just left a juvenile boot camp outside Gary, Indiana, — "they were really excited," noted Skinner. Adding even more to the festive block-party feel was a large picnic spread that awaited performers and concert-goers alike, thanks in part to Immanuel Lutheran Church in Downers Grove, which often partners with this Aurora not-for-profit social agency founded in 1999 by Jeff Gilbert and his wife Janet. Forgoing their usual high-rise bleacher set-up, this large gaggle of teens performed its song and dance directly on the grass — just feet away from an audience that included 35 Hope for Tomorrow clients, as well as staff and a few family and friends. With the help of a live band, the young singers moved through a set of powerful Christian and secular tunes that focused on our human struggles and the ability to rise above such strife through love and faith in Christ. "This was what I needed to hear at this point in my recovery," said 27-year-old Ben Locke, smiling broadly after sitting front and center through the 90-minute concert. "This was a big step for me in the right direction." Locke, who has been living in one of Hope for Tomorrow's homes these past 18 months, insisted that, after repeated stints in other programs, he's now "doing the hard work" needed to beat his alcohol addiction. It was an emotional concert for him, Locke said, admitting he even got teary-eyed (as did many of us) when some of the teens, one by one, revealed through words printed on cardboard signs the personal struggles in their own lives. Among those hurdles: anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, lack of friends, lust and the loss of a parent. "That last one really hit me hard," Locke said. "It made me think of my own mom and dad and what they have done for me and how supportive they have been." Afterward, the young man took the time to approach some of the Mirror Image members, shaking their hands and thanking them for bringing this musical message of hope to his front steps. Gilbert said more than a dozen clients shared similar sentiments with him about the program. But it's the kids from South Carolina, their musical director insisted, "who come away with more." "We will," Skimmer promised, "remember this for a long time." So will a few unexpected guests who, hearing the band and youthful voices fill the night air on this busy stretch of Lake Street, were drawn to the outdoor concert. Those included 92-year-old Donald Harner, a World War II Navy veteran who wandered over from his home at Plum Landing retirement center, took a seat in the front row and stayed until that final round of applause. "This was an amazing performance,' said the former seaman who served in the South Pacific. "Life is good … and each day only gets better."