News Segment


September 2, 2006

Ashley Abernathy was 9 years old, suffering from leukemia and needed to be cheered up. She found her inspiration from the unlikeliest of places: a serenade from David Lee Roth.

The former Van Halen frontman recorded a song especially for Abernathy, giving the little girl the rock-star treatment in the heart-rending tune.

“Who deals the cards? Ashley Abernathy,” Roth sang. “Who steals your heart? Ashley Abernathy. Ashley Abernathy makes you happy!!”

“It was just amazing, really cool, to think that a rock star would’ve recorded a song for me,” said Ashley, who is now 15 and in high school in Gastonia, North Carolina. She has been in remission for almost five years.

The song was made by the Songs of Love Foundation, a Queens-based nonprofit that records personalized tunes for chronically or terminally ill children and young adults. This month, the foundation expects to reach a milestone by recording song No. 10,000.

The foundation plans to celebrate its achievements during a Black Eyed Peas concert on Sept. 8, when it will enlist assembled fans to sing tune No. 10,000. The song is for Saeed Boynes, 14, who has sickle cell anemia and is being treated at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the New York City’s Bronx area.

The Songs of Love Foundation was founded in 1996 by John Beltzer, a musician and songwriter whose Queens apartment doubles as a recording studio.

Twelve years earlier, Beltzer’s twin brother, Julio, committed suicide by jumping off the roof of an apartment building — the final act of a monthslong struggle with depression and schizophrenia.

“When it first happened … I thought I would have nightmares every night,” John Beltzer said. “I do think about it a lot. It’s still very surreal.”

The traumatic episode — Beltzer made it to the roof just moments after his brother jumped, and stood by him as he took his last breath — is a pivotal part of the Songs of Love story. The foundation is named after a song Julio Beltzer wrote and recorded two months before he died, and his spirit is kept alive through his brother’s work.

“I really believe that this was his gift,” John Beltzer said. “The seed he planted, after a 12-year incubation period, that seed sprouted in January 1996.”

He said the idea hit him with full force one day in January 1996 as he walked down a street in his neighborhood.

Soon, he was consumed with getting the group got off the ground.

“I felt completely empowered, just completely driven,” Beltzer, 46, remembered. “There’s no question about it — just something took over. I became obsessed.”

Songs of Love works with hospitals and families around the country to identify a person for whom the foundation can record a song.

The child or young adult’s family completes a biographical information sheet, which they send back to the foundation. The group then commissions someone from its team of songwriters to craft a tune based on those details — name, age, favorite hobbies — and within 25 days, the song is recorded, transferred to a CD and shipped to the child.

The service is free for the song recipients, but songwriters are offered a $75 to $100 stipend per song to help cover the costs of writing, producing and recording. The group, which has 12 full- and part-time employees, gets its funding through individual and corporate donations or grants.

The melodies aren’t meant as musical get-well cards, but, as Beltzer describes it, serve as “a constant reinforcement of their healthy selves.”

Ashley Abernathy says her song still resonates with her to this day. In the song, Roth refers to the little girl’s affinity for Beanie Babies and driving a golf cart with her family.

“I love listening to it,” she said.

Such reactions remind Beltzer he is using his talents in the best way possible: to help others.

“Everybody can understand the language of love, and compassion and caring,” he said. “When somebody helps somebody else, everybody feels the same. Everybody’s going to feel good.”

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