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Ollie's Orchestra, our partner this Giving Tuesday, spreads hope and healing through music

Ollie from Ollie's Orchestra
Courtesy of Ollie's Orchestra
Ollie Horn, the namesake of Ollie's Orchestra, which serves the pediatric cancer community through music.

Ollie Horn was 9 months old when, in April of 2019, he was diagnosed with Atypical Teratoid Rhabdoid Tumor, an aggressive form of brain cancer. During his long in-patient treatment at Boston Children's Hospital, his parents, Rachel Krieger and Max Horn, sent out a call for local musicians to visit with their instruments.

"Max and I saw the response that it gave to Ollie," Krieger tells WRTI. "On his crummiest days — you know, nausea and just feeling awful — music would come in and brighten his eyes, and he would smile and laugh. And then we'd have other children around the oncology hall congregating and listening to the music that was brought to us."

Ollie's Orchestra backpacks
courtesy of Ollie's Orchestra
Ollie Horn with his parents, Rachel Krieger and Max Horn, dropping off their first round of backpacks in 2021.

The experience sparked an idea, which Horn and Krieger soon turned into a reality. By 2021, after Ollie had started treatment at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, they used a Make-A-Wish Foundation grant to fill 35 backpacks with real musical instruments — assorted hand percussion, and ukuleles — to give to children in treatment. It was the start of Ollie's Orchestra, a nonprofit that has since distributed roughly 300 backpacks and guitars nationwide.

Pediatric cancer is the leading cause of death by disease for those under the age of 15. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 10,470 children in that age range will receive a diagnosis in the United States this year.

Ollie's Orchestra Max and Ollie
Julia lehman
Max Horn with his son Ollie, the namesake for Ollie's Orchestra.

Ollie's Orchestra is harnessing the power of music to bring light, and even a touch of joy, to the pediatric cancer journey, one patient at a time. "Once you experience the pain and emotions of your child, it really creates a change in you," reflects Horn. "And so we really connected deeply with that, and it changed who our community was. The network of parents who have experienced a similar feeling around the country is very, very strong. And so we felt that it was important for us to give back to that community, and to to be good stewards for our community and to give to our peers."

WRTI is proud to partner with Ollie's Orchestra this Giving Tuesday: for every contribution to the station on Nov. 29, WRTI will donate an instrument to support the organization's backpack program. Contribute here, or by calling 1-866-809-9784.

In addition to distributing instruments, Ollie's Orchestra supports music therapy and music education — largely through the efforts of committed volunteers like Morgan Beck, who works with infants and toddlers as an early intervention special instructor. Beck saw firsthand the calming and uplifting effect that music had on Ollie, and works with other young patients who have special diagnoses.

"What I love most is when the children are working towards some goal that their family has set for them, it's all measured by little steps towards progress," Beck says. "So as they put in their hard work and do their homework and everything, I love when they finally reach that little goal that we've been working towards, and I love celebrating with the child and their family."

Ollie's Orchestra ukulele
Courtesy of Ollie's Orchestra

Sarah Mosden is a music therapist who provides guitar and ukulele lessons, among other music instruction, through Ollie's Orchestra. "For children undergoing cancer treatment, music is so unbelievably powerful," she says. "Children are in isolation, so it's working on things like social skills and self-esteem within that setting. Helping to alleviate pain during treatment."

Mosden adds: "Learning how to play an instrument, for a child that's undergoing treatment, could be really therapeutic in that it helps with their sense of well-being."

The music therapy and instruction provided by Ollie's Orchestra, like its advocacy mission, are designed with the long term in mind. "Because of the length of time that's part of a pediatric cancer diagnosis, Ollie's Orchestra provides a lasting experience," explains Horn.

"Our core foundation is built around the idea of music as permanent," he goes on. "So the child performs, the child learns and is educated on music. And so that creates something where they have the power to play, and the power to create music at all times, and it's not going to walk out of the room. It's not going to come and go. It's something that's there with them and at their fingertips. And so by gifting children with the power of music and the power of the creation of music, that enables them to fill their time and to continue with that music as part of their entire journey through the pediatric cancer experience."

WRTI is proud to partner with Ollie's Orchestra this Giving Tuesday. For every contribution to the station on Nov. 29, WRTI will donate an instrument to support the organization's backpack program. Contribute here, or by calling 1-866-809-9784.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes.