Leora Friedman, founder of Music is Medicine, with TV actor and performer Darren Criss at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards.
Leora Friedman, founder of Music is Medicine, with TV actor and performer Darren Criss at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. (Courtesy of Leora Friedman, Baltimore Sun)

In the summer of 2008, When Leora Friedman was 15 and her sister Ariela was 19, the sisters led a song-writing workshop for patients and families of the Hackerman-Patz House, a Baltimore residence for children receiving limb-lengthening surgery at Sinai Hospital.

Working with a $500 grant from the Johns Hopkins University, the Friedman sisters donated instruments, wrote songs and performed with the seriously ill youngsters. The result was an album, "A Friend Like You," filled with original songs.


"They didn't necessarily have to be about strength and courage, though a lot of them happened to be about that," said Leora Friedman, who at the time was about to start her junior year at Beth Tfiloh, a Jewish day school in Pikesville.

Five years later, Friedman, now 21, is a senior at Princeton University, where she leads Music is Medicine, a nonprofit devoted to bringing comfort to seriously ill young people through song. The centerpiece is Donate a Song, which gives young cancer patients the opportunity to meet their favorite musicians, collaborate on songs, and appear in music videos.

The nonprofit's first song, "Fly," was written by actor and singer-songwriter Drew Seeley for a 14-year-old girl who died of cancer in August 2012. The video includes footage of the two talking in the child's room at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"What do you want the song to be about," Seeley asks her.

"Something that is inspiring," she replies.

The lyrics include: "How do you smile when you don't want to? How do you laugh when it's easy to cry?"

The second song, "Brave and True," was written for a 16-year-old boy by Savannah Outen. The third and most recent, "Unsinkable," was inspired by a16-year-old girl and composed by Sam Tsui and Elle Winter.

In May, Friedman was featured on "Random Acts," a show on MtvU, MTV's network for colleges and universities. She took a train to New York and was interviewed about Music is Medicine.

"I never did an interview like that before," she recalled. "It was amazing."

And it was about to get even more amazing. During the filming, Darren Criss, a star of the television show "Glee," walked in and asked her to accompany him to the MTV Video Music Awards.

"I was definitely shocked," Friedman said.

A few months later, on Aug. 25, Friedman found herself walking the red carpet in front of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"He was great," she said of Criss. "He's a very talented guy. I'm very grateful that he got involved."

Friedman is hoping the experience will help her bring her organization to the next level. One goal is to put together an album of songs created from artist-patient pairings, with profits benefiting medical organizations. Another is to encourage other people to start regional Music is Medicine chapters.


Yaniv Sapir, a Princeton junior who is handling marketing, said the organization is growing quickly, and has about a dozen students who are heavily involved, as well as others who help out but are less active. He also helps recruit artists and matches them with young muses.

"Hopefully we're just getting started," Sapir said.

Maggie Sajak, 18, is a Princeton sophomore and Maryland native who also is involved with Music is Medicine.

"From the very first time I heard about it, I could tell it was an amazing cause that had such a positive impact on so many lives," said the country singer, who is the daughter of Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak. She co-wrote a song called "Live Out Loud" for a Johns Hopkins cancer patient named Muriel.

"I was able to play the song for Muriel and her family this summer, and it was so gratifying to see their reactions to the music," Sajak said. "I recently recorded the song in Nashville and the video and song will be released very soon," she wrote in an email.

Friedman said she was inspired to start Music is Medicine after seeing that her work at the Hackerman-Patz house made such a difference.

"It was really amazing to see my music having the ability to impact a child's life," she said. "I became addicted to that feeling."

Determined to keep the program going, Friedman applied for and was one of five recipients of a $3,000 Key Change Grant, sponsored by the Grammy Foundation and Do Something Organization.

"That was totally life-changing," she said. She attended the Grammy Awards in 2009, but more importantly, she gained confidence in her mission.

Her sister, Ariela, is now a student at the University of Maryland Medical School.

"I think what also inspired us was our dad is a pediatric oncologist at Johns Hopkins," Friedman said. "It made us a little more aware of the hardships children face when they battle a serious pediatric challenge."

For more information about Music is Medicine, visit the website, musicismed.org.