Ailing children soothed by 'Songs of Love'
By Nanci Hellmich
By Nanci Hellmich
Seven-year-old Ronald Sterling of New York City loves baseball, hot dogs, doughnuts with sprinkles and Sesame Street.
But this month Ronald, who has a serious genetic disorder that affects his immune system, got a special treat.
Bob McGrath of Sesame Street has just recorded a song that's all about Ronald. This month 15,000 schoolchildren from the New York City area sang the chorus to the soundtrack, along with McGrath, during a recording session at Shea Stadium.
The event marked the 12,000th song produced by the Songs of Love Foundation, a non-profit group that creates personalized compositions for children and teens who are chronically or terminally ill, are developmentally disabled or have serious psychological or psychiatric problems. Each song has its own melody and lyrics that describe the child's interests, family, friends and pets.
"These are soundtracks of their lives," says John Beltzer, 47, founder and president of the organization.
Says McGrath: "The songs capture each child's beauty and spirit in a powerful way. I'm always amazed at the strength, courage and wisdom of these young children who have faced such difficult challenges in their early lives."
Ronald won't be able to attend the recording, but he will get to watch the performance later on a DVD. "Having my own song is so cool," he says.
Right now he's in the hospital so doctors can tweak his medications and treatments. After he leaves, he'll receive care at home, and he'll take his new song with him.
Pediatrician Burton Grebin, president of St. Mary's health care System for Children in Bayside, N.Y., where Ronald is being treated, describes him as a bright and fun-loving boy who can't play contact sports or hang around with other kids very much because the disease makes him more susceptible to skin rashes, bleeding and infections.
"Ronald, like most children we care for, has a life-limiting condition," Grebin says. The recording of this song is Ronald's "special moment," he says.
'I LISTEN TO IT WHEN I'M SAD'
Other children who have received songs from the Songs of Love Foundation talked about what the composition means to them:
Kolton Smith , 12, Waxahachie, Texas, who has leukemia, listens to his song when he's on the way to and from the hospital. He estimates he has listened to it 500 times in two months. "It makes me feel really special that someone took the time to write a song for me," he says.
Says his mother, Kathy Smith: "The first time I listened to the song, I cried. And then I wanted to dance and laugh because it was so fun."
Adrianna Shingleton, 11, Berkeley Springs, W. Va., who has leukemia and has had a bone marrow transplant, says she likes her song because "it has all my brothers' and sisters' names and my pets' names in it. I listen to it when I'm sad, and it makes me happy."
Saeed Boynes 14, the Bronx, New York, has sickle cell disease. He listens to his song when in the hospital. He loves to play basketball, but now he can't. He says the song "lifts my spirits when I'm down - when I'm sick or not in a good mood."
His mother, Sylvia Boynes, says: "Anything that makes him feel better about himself, I'm for it."
Nathaniel Kristall , 13, an eighth-grader with a chronic blood disorder who lives in Dix Hills, N.Y., says: "It's really special because it was written just for me and reflects who I am. I like listening to my song because it has a soothing melody. All my friends have it on their iPods."
THE STORY OF TWO BROTHERS
It's for children like these that Beltzer created the Songs of Love Foundation about a decade ago. But the groundwork was laid much earlier. He and his twin brother, Julio, were born in Brazil and moved to New York when they were 8. As young men, they had their own band and wrote songs.
Beltzer's life was forever changed when Julio committed suicide in 1984. "He had developed schizophrenia," he says. "He was 24 when he took his own life. It was pretty traumatic for me."
Two months before he died, Julio had written a piece called "Songs of Love," which includes these lines:
Songs of love are really what we need to take away our fear
And make the best of love ...
To share a touch of warmth when you're feeling down
To be your only friend when no one's 'round
After his brother's death, Beltzer continued to pursue a music career, playing in bands and writing songs. Then in 1996, he was walking down a street in his Forest Hills neighborhood in New York City when he had an epiphany.
"The idea of writing and recording songs for sick children seemed to come out of nowhere," he says. "I immediately knew I was going to call it Songs of Love after the song Julio wrote. I felt it was a simple concept but a very powerful one."
Beltzer says he figured "a song about a child's life would make them smile." But it does much more than that. The songs are sometimes played while children are enduring painful treatments in the hospital.
"We get reports that for the first time the children didn't cry during treatments because they were busy listening to their own song," Beltzer says. "This is a form of music therapy. They can play it anytime they are not feeling well."
Parents tell Beltzer that when the song first arrives, the child and the family play it 20 to 50 times that day. Each family gets one CD, but they can make as many copies as they like. And family and friends from around the world can download the songs from the website (songsoflove.org) for a donation of 99 cents.
Talia Haviv, a specialist at Children's Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx, has worked for several years with the foundation.
"I have one patient who is 4 years old, and every time he gets admitted, the mother brings the CD with her, and they play it over and over again," Haviv says. "He sings the chorus because it has his first and last name in it. The staff members know some of the words to this one. It's very sweet."
Susan Trout, a social worker at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., has worked with the foundation for two years and helped get songs for about 30 children who have life-threatening illnesses. "We have families from all over the world come here, and the foundation is able to have the song sung in the family's language."
'SING A SONG FOR US'
Beltzer says he has gotten thousands of letters from parents telling how the songs touched their lives. Some of the kids are terminally ill, and the songs are played at funerals, he says. "It helps parents heal during their grieving process."
The foundation has a staff of 12 people, including Beltzer, and about 100 freelance songwriters, who get a stipend of $75 to $100 for each song. Almost all the songwriters also record their compositions. Beltzer has written about 1,000 of them.
The foundation produces 250 songs a month; each one costs about $250 to make. The money comes from donations, both in dollars and through contributions of used cars, which are then sold.
Several celebrities have done recordings, including David Lee Roth, Michael Bolton, Nancy Sinatra and Jamie-Lynn Sigler ("The Sopranos"), Beltzer says, but he wishes more artists would participate. "We'd like them to write a song for us, sing a song for us. I would like them to give back the very thing that made them rich: their voice, their talent."
McGrath agrees. "Any little moment of happiness and joy you can bring into these children's lives is worthwhile."
Here is an excerpt from the song written for Ronald Sterling:
There's a boy you should meet
But you might not recognize him
Today he might be Spider-Man or Zorro ...
He likes vanilla ice cream
And McDonald's, Coke and Sprite
Not all at once, or he won't eat tomorrow
His favorite color is red
And instead of going to bed
He's playing Xbox or PlayStation
Sports - he likes 'em all
Soccer, baseball, basketball
When he's on your side, the other team's shakin'
He's the reason why
Our voices fill the sky, saying ...
We're here in Shea Stadium
And we wanna say to you
This is your Song of Love
You're a grand slam home run
You're our champion