Student’s nonprofit lifts sick children’s spirits through music

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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Happy Tunes

A Heritage High School senior brings music to patients at Shriners Hospital for Children in Portland.

A Heritage High School senior brings music to patients at Shriners Hospital for Children in Portland.

photo“(Music has) always helped me get through the troubles I’ve had.” Madeline Bennett Heritage High School senior who started the nonprofit Owl Be Better With Music and named it in honor of her late grandfather’s favorite bird

(/The Columbian)

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To donate to Owl Be Better With Music via PayPal, or to learn more about the nonprofit, visit Owl Be Better with Music.

PORTLAND — Five-year-old Darian Atterbury stared curiously at the visitors in his room.

His eyes moved from person to person. A sly smirk spread across his face when his eyes landed on the woman dressed in a bunny costume. He grabbed a toy car from the table in front of him and started spinning its wheels.

Then, the music started playing.

He set down the car and turned his attention to the man playing “Johnny B. Goode” on his guitar. His smirk reappeared when he was handed a drumstick and a small tambourine. His tongue peeked out between his lips as he focused on striking the tambourine with the drumstick. He clutched the tambourine’s cloth handle as the instrument twirled beneath his hand.

For those few minutes, Darian played and smiled like any other child. Not like a child who is restricted to a hospital for four to eight weeks. Not like a child with a metal halo attached to his head and connected to weights designed to pull his spine straighter.

“That’s one of the things he can do without getting hurt,” said his mom, Diana Grenier. “Since he can’t do sports, he’ll do music.”

For one afternoon last week, the music came to Darian.

Volunteers with the nonprofit Owl Be Better With Music visited the Roseburg, Ore., boy in his room at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Portland. The recent visit was the third time the new organization visited the hospital to play music for sick children.

The nonprofit group and the monthly hospital visits are headed by Heritage High School senior Madeline Bennett.

“It’s been great having her come,” said Susan Gallegos, certified child life specialist at Shriners.

The children welcome the new faces and the music. Gallegos said she has seen children’s moods shift as they play along with the volunteers. The music helps them forget about their pain, she said.

“Music therapy is just great,” Gallegos said.

When Bennett started the nonprofit group, that was exactly the goal she had in mind.

“(Music has) always helped me get through the troubles I’ve had,” Bennett said.

Bennett launched the nonprofit group a few months ago in honor of her grandfather, who died from bone cancer. At a Relay for Life event after her grandfather’s death, Bennett saw children wearing survivor T-shirts.

“Ever since then, I decided I wanted to do something to help,” she said.

That something was to create Owl Be Better For Music, named after her grandfather’s favorite bird.

The last Wednesday of every month, Bennett and her team of volunteers visit Shriners. Her cousin Nick Ettlin plays guitar, and her parents, Dan and Traci, pass out owl-shaped cookies, T-shirts and stuffed animals from Build-A-Bear Workshop. This month’s visit also included an appearance by Paulette, the Build-A-Bear bunny.

The entire effort is funded by donations from area businesses and the Vancouver high-schooler’s own checkbook. Bennett performs odd jobs for neighbors -- raking leaves, pressure-washing driveways, cleaning houses -- to purchase supplies not donated.

Despite the cost, Bennett plans to expand the nonprofit group once she graduates and heads to college. Her mother will continue operations locally while Bennett starts another branch near whichever college she chooses to attend. She will study to become a pediatric orthopedic surgeon.

She said she also hopes to expand the nonprofit’s offerings. She wants to recruit more business sponsors and teachers who can help continue music lessons with kids who find a love for music while in the hospital.

Perhaps that will include kids like Darian, who, according to his mom, will be getting his own guitar and drum set soon.

“That’s his thing: music,” Grenier said.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health;http://facebook.com/reporterharshman;marissa.harshman@columbian.com.