Struggling singer and songwriter John Beltzer was at a professional crossroads in 1996 when he came up with an idea that's helped thousands of chronic and terminally ill children.
"I had just lost a record deal and was pretty devastated,” explains Beltzer, 46, of Forest Hills, N.Y. "I was walking down the street in my neighborhood and had an epiphany to use my talents for a higher purpose.”
After years of attempting to write songs he hoped would be adored by millions, Beltzer saw far greater potential in writing for significantly smaller audiences—one child at a time. "The concept just popped into my head to write personalized songs for seriously ill children,” he says. "It was such a simple yet powerful idea, but something told me nobody had done it before.”
Beltzer contacted St. Jude Children's Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., and over a four-day period wrote and recorded six personalized songs for six kids based on biographical information provided by hospital staff. "I just knew it was going to work,” he says.
Two weeks later, he got a call from the mother of Brittany Smith, one of the first children to receive a personalized song. "She put Brittany on the phone who, with the cutest little voice, said, ‘Thank you for my song.' I hung up and cried for half an hour.
"I knew that call was all the Grammy award I was ever going to need.”
Nearly 10 years later, the Songs of Love Foundation has enlisted more than 500 professional songwriters to write and record customized songs for 8,000 seriously ill children across the nation. Beltzer has written about 1,000 songs himself. Celebrities, including Michael Bolton, Billy Joel, Ronnie Spector, David Lee Roth and the Broadway cast of Titanic, also have volunteered their talents.
Currently producing about 160 songs a month, the organization has a full-time staff of three, plus two part-time employees. The process starts when a family member or caregiver fills out and submits a Songs of Love profile form, downloaded from the foundation's website, www.songsoflove.org, or provided by the hospital. The child's name, interests and hobbies, as well as names of friends, pets and family members, are then integrated into a song written just for him or her, professionally recorded and delivered on cassette or CD to the child's bedside. Turnaround for a customized song is typically four to eight weeks, but can be as little as 24 to 48 hours in dire circumstances. Costs and overhead average about $250 per song, but there's no charge to families; expenses are underwritten by private and corporate donations. Requests grew by 33 percent last year, however, and funding continues to be a challenge.
John Alexander, an executive at Great American Country cable television network, mobilized the music community in Nashville, Tenn., for the compilation album Songs Of Love: Medicine Of Music, sales of which offset the organization's increasing costs. "These songs are a gift,” says Alexander, 48, who lives in Franklin, Tenn. "Not just for the child and family, but for the writers and everyone associated.”
Nancy Harrison, 56, of Oklahoma City, Okla., recently requested a song for her 5-year-old grandson Mikey, who's battling lymphoma. "He had just started a really tough treatment,” Harrison says. "School was starting and he didn't want to go because he didn't have any hair. We surprised him with the song and he lit up like a candle. We were all crying. It really gave him some kind of power.”
Five-year-old Betsi Kennedy of Madison, Wis., received her Song of Love while undergoing chemotherapy for a brain tumor. "We can't get it out of her CD player,” says Betsi's mom, Debi Kennedy, 35. Months later, it remains a source of strength. "Receiving this song,” Kennedy says, "has been like a ray of sunshine at just the right time.”