A different music takes flight into the silent corridors of hospitals where long shadows of illnesses are cast into the hall. The children’s fight against cancer caused so much fear and uncertainty towards the kids and their loved ones, but the symphony of support will help them dance through the battle. In this episode, Rachel Krieger, the Co-founder of Ollie’s Orchestra, talks about how the organization spreads solace to kids and their families as they fight the horrors of pediatric cancer. Ollie’s Orchestra will not let you go through this battle alone. Let’s join Rachel as she hands musical backpacks to families to receive the gift of music that transformed Rachel and Ollie’s lives. Because in the face of unimaginable fight, music takes flight into the world of healing. So, don’t miss this episode where music meets healing.
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
You're here with me, Maddy.
Also, me, Jess.
We have Rachel from Ollie's Orchestra. Rachel, do you want to give us a brief overview of Ollie's?
Thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to be here. You guys have been such an amazing partner for Ollie's Orchestra. I'm excited to be here and get to talk about us. Ollie's Orchestra is a pediatric nonprofit cancer organization that provides music and music education to children with cancer. Our mission focus is three-prong. The main focus of it is to provide musical instruments to children, which is where you guys come in. You are helping us get the musical instruments to the kids. We also focus work on advocacy for pediatric cancer as well as raising research funds for children with cancer.
How did you guys come into existence?
Our oldest son, Ollie, was diagnosed with a very rare and aggressive brain tumor at nine months old. We started treatment in Boston right away. The first thing that got Ollie to smile post-surgery or post-tumor resection was music. Music therapists came in with an ocean drum. They started doing music therapy with him and Ollie smiled. For us, that gift was immense. For Ollie, I hope it was immense as well.
As our intensive treatment period went on, we were given the gift of music over and over again, whether it be through musical instruments, music therapy, or artists coming in to perform in pre-COVID times in Ollie's hospital room. At the time, we thought, “Every kid should have access to something that can bring them even a sliver of joy during this really difficult time.” I and my husband, Max, who's not here with me, we're co-founders. We thought that this should be ubiquitous and every child should have access. That's how we started it. We started about two years after his initial treatment.
You were connected to us originally through Pickleberry Pie. Were they the original musical circle that came into Ollie's Hospital room?
They weren't. We were in Boston for initial treatment and then in New York. We moved down to the Philadelphia area from New York back in 2020. They played for us multiple times in Elkins Park in front of our house. They helped us put on our first field day, which, Maddy, you were in attendance for. We developed a partnership from there on. They have performed for Ollie multiple times. We're grateful for their partnership as well.
Can one of you talk about who Pickleberry Pie is or what they do? I've seen them at the events. They've even come to our events as well. I know that's our link to you, but I don't think I know what they do.
Pickleberry Pie provides musical concerts for children in inpatient and outpatient settings, not just those with a cancer diagnosis. They were quite a natural partner for us considering part of our mission was fantastic that we both agreed to provide music for children. Ollie’s Orchestra provides monthly rhythm circles to our children who receive the musical backpacks. We put a flyer in each backpack. They virtually provide one Sunday a month a rhythm circle where we get to utilize and learn how to use the instruments in the backpack. We play with the instruments and learn how to use them in a therapeutic way. Pickleberry Pie provides that ongoing basis to thousands of children all over the country. For us, that's what they do.
I know we met Jenny a couple of years ago through our executive director's Rotary Club. It was one of those partnerships that was like, “One day, we're going to align. Something big is going to happen.” We always stayed in touch, and then she reached out saying, “I want you to meet Max and Rachel from Ollie's Orchestra.” It blossomed from there. Those partnerships between nonprofit organizations are always so important to keep that referral system going back and forth because we can all help one another.
Within the pediatric oncology community, we feel so strongly about that as well that not one organization does one thing. It's the same with all nonprofits. Not all of us can do one thing. To have them and to have you guys build pieces that we wouldn't be able to do on our own. I hope we fulfill some part of your mission as well.
I know that your background is in healthcare. Does Max have a background in music? Was Ollie's experience what drove you here and you're learning it as you go?
We're big concertgoers. We've always been big. We've gone to the Newport Folk Festival a bunch of times. We've gone to dozens of concerts together. Max and I have been together for almost twenty years. Ollie taught us more about music when he was nine months old than the two of us really understood. We had a cellist come in from the Boston Symphony who started playing Bach’s cello's first symphony. Somebody who's a music fan will correct me. Ollie loves it. Someone would come in and play Mozart and Ollie is like, “Oh.”
We learned to listen and hear the music to be able to see in our son what he connected to and how much light and life it gave him during such a tough time. Ollie is the one who's taught us a ton about music. His favorite instrument is the cello. Yo-Yo Ma has sent a video of him playing Bach’s cello first symphony. Ollie very smartly thought it was one of the greatest performances that he had seen. Ollie has been our biggest teacher. We are music fans, but none of us have a background in music. We both took a college course in Music History and neither of us was that excellent at it.
We relate to that. I had to take a music class. My last music class was in high school. It was not pretty, to say the least.
My only musical experience was with the recorder in elementary school, which has done nothing for me personally as an adult.
Max and I did pick up a ukulele and then a guitar. We started taking lessons. Ollie is not interested in letting us practice in front of him because we're not very good.
I'm sure he lets you know.
He's like, “Please stop. Thank you.” We're like, “Fair.”
I know we have helped you provide backpacks to the Cincinnati Children's Hospital. Our volunteer pilots have helped fly them there so you can save costs on the shipping and everything. Do you provide them to any other hospitals local or far away?
We do. You guys have helped us at Boston Children's. We thank you so much. Shipping costs are one of our biggest challenges as an organization. I don't think we realized how much funding can go to shipping. You guys provide such an immense service for us, so thank you. We partner with about fifteen hospitals around the country, including Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and St. Chris right here. We are at Texas Children's. We’ve given to Rady’s in San Diego, I believe. We’ve given to St. Jude’s. We're in quite a few locations at this point. It's been amazing to see the growth and to see the receptivity of fellow oncology families.
How do you get people to hear about you? How's your outreach if it's mostly volunteer-based?
It's really through word of mouth. Music therapists talk to other music therapists. They talk about this new resource that they find wonderful. They talk to other families too. We do date direct requests as well. Max and I do fulfill in our living room. We get about 1 request every 2 days, whether it be for backpacks, guitars, or our custom requests.
We do have three musical requests and programs. You guys are amazing at sending out our backpacks and guitars to the hospitals. We also have a custom program. We have to date given out multiple keyboards, electric guitars, a harmonium, and trumpets. We offer lessons for all of the children and adolescents who are interested in lessons as well. We will find somebody to teach them how to use the instrument as well. We have someone teaching somebody how to use the trumpet.
It's through word of mouth. It's through people telling each other about, “I heard a friend in another hospital had this.” They sign up right in line and we ship it out to them. It's great to get the big hospitals involved. The fact that you guys fly to Cincinnati a whole batch for us is quite amazing because it saves us immensely on shipping costs but also because music therapists get to be the ones who give out the information and get to, hopefully, hand them to all the kiddos.
What we learned from our nine-month-old is that music doesn't discriminate. You can be nine months old and appreciate music the same way somebody in their 30s would appreciate music but perhaps differently and even better because it's so novice to them. The music therapists are the ones who give it out when it's handed to them, which is also a great gift. Having lived on inpatient, we know what it's like to get something so wonderful like that. We're grateful that they do that as well.
When you guys send backpacks or instruments in general to, let's say, Boston Children's or Cincinnati Children's, are you going for how many bodies are in beds there or is there a specific request based on who the music therapist is seeing? How do you guys come up with that number?
It's usually based on what the music therapists can handle. There are also storage issues in hospitals, so it is what they think they can handle at the moment. Our normal requests are about 10 to 15 backpacks and about 3 to 5 guitars each time. It's based on what storage capacity they have. If they have more children, they'd like to take more. You guys sent to Cincinnati multiple times. There are so many who do need and want them, so we try and get them out as quickly as possible.
How can our audience support your organization or help spread the word about what you do more?
We have a website, OlliesOrchestra.org. There, they can donate if they'd like to. Any dollar amount is really helpful. $5 covers our smallest instrument, which is a little quack stick in there which would make Ollie laugh immensely. We've heard from other parents that they get the same reaction from their kids. It quacks. You push it and it sounds like a duck. It's fantastic.
Share, repost, and spread the word about us. Get our name out there so that we can continue providing this for children. It has been a big gift to us to be able to pay it forward because Ollie's our little North Star, a little guiding light. To get these backpacks and to get such good feedback from families that they've had a similar feeling is a big deal for us.
My dad met Max at the Wings N’ Wheels that we host. I introduced him to Max. I was like, “This is what his organization does. This is how they got started.” My dad's like, “You have to put them on my Facebook page.” He was so excited.
That is adorable. I love that so much. Thank you to Maddy's father. That's exactly what we need. Sharing like that is perfect. Getting our name out there and getting the word out that we exist and that we provide this service for kids. 10% of our donations also go to research. Moving the needle in pediatric cancer research is really challenging. For us, it is a huge component of that. Given what we've seen Ollie have to do, it's a really important part of our mission as well.
This is also about advocating for these kids and making sure that people know that pediatric cancer is real. We were not a pediatric cancer family until we were one. I'm a nurse practitioner and it was not what we anticipated, but we do not care. We do not discriminate. We are making sure that these kids have a voice too.
Are you guys going to do the field day again this 2024?
We are. Our date is scheduled for June 9th, 2024. It might move to June 2nd, 2024. We would love for you guys to be there in attendance. We're figuring out last-minute details to hone in on the exact date. We're so excited. In 2023, we had a great turnout. Maddy was there. We had 200 folks that attended. It was really fantastic.
We have to share the word with you. When you figure that date out, send it over to us. We are happy to send it to everybody we know.
Thank you. We really appreciate that. We appreciate you all so much. It's such a gift to get these backpacks over in bulk to these kids.
"It's such a gift to get the musical backpacks over to kids."
Do you guys have a goal that you want to send, like an X number of backpacks to X number of hospitals? Is that how you go into your fiscal or annual year, whatever your year is?
Our goal is to get it to every child who wants one. I don't know what that looks like. I know that every year, there are thousands of children diagnosed with cancer. Music really does help. It somehow does create those smiles, those laughs, and those moments. Our big, overarching goal is for every child who wants one that either has cancer or had a prior cancer diagnosis. We do know that survivorship is also complicated. Music can help them as well. Our goal is to increase partnerships with hospitals and get the word out. We don't have a number in mind, but to keep growing and getting as many backpacks and musical instruments to children as we possibly can.
That’s very cool.
Whatever we can do to help. We talk about you guys all the time. We are more than happy to help spread that word and continue the partnership to get the backpacks where they need to go.
We appreciate that so much. It almost feels like you guys are magic. We email you guys and say, “We have this hospital that's looking to re-up their backpacks,” and then you guys fly it there. It feels truly magical. You guys feel like magic, so thank you.
I'm really glad this is recorded so everybody can remember that we are magical.
You guys feel magical. What you do on your day-to-day is amazing and incredible. I personally know families that have been impacted by you guys. What you do for us is magical, so we appreciate you so much.
"What Angel Flight does for Ollie's Orchestra is magical."
Our pilots are still so happy to fly the instruments as happy as they are to fly a patient themselves. Some of them are like, “Do we think that it's going to be a quiet flight?”
They come out with all the dad jokes.
The dad jokes are real. We know this because we’re in the area.
I love that. That is so cute.
Do you remember the first flight we did with you? We told the pilot that Ollie would be there and he'd probably love to see an airplane. He called and emailed a couple of times saying, “Are you sure Ollie is going to be there?” We were like, “Are you not going to take the flight if he's not going to be there?” I remember the day was so windy and cold, but we made it work.
Ollie is like an all-outdoor guy except wind. Wind does not thrill him. I remember he was like, “This is cool, but can we go back inside?” I was like, “Touche.” He hates the wind. I don't know what it is.
What is one final thought that you want to leave the audience with?
Pediatric cancer is real. A lot of times, society looks at St. Jude’s commercials, which are fantastic and it does bring awareness, but our kiddos are real. It is a really challenging experience. The thing that helped our family immensely was music. That's why we do this. We do it because we really do think it has the power to help others.
Getting the word out that we exist and that they exist, whether it be supporting us, supporting another pediatric oncology organization, signing up to become a bone marrow donor match, or sharing a post from another organization gets the words out that our kids are real kids and real people and fighting big battles. Every little bit helps. Everything helps. Every bit of advocacy, post, and all of it helps. We appreciate you guys so much.
We appreciate you too. Thanks so much for hanging out with us.
Thank you, guys.
Thank you so much.
Thank you. I appreciate you both so much.
After Rachel hopped off, she gave us some numbers. Apparently, by us helping with the flights to fly the instruments to the different hospitals that they go to, they can get 2 to 3 more backpacks to more patients because they don't have the shipping cost. To put that into perspective, each backpack is full of real instruments. It's not a toy. It's not plastic. It is the real deal. Each backpack is about $180 in value for the different instruments that are in it. There are six different instruments. $180 times 2 to 3, that's the minimum of $360. Going up from there, I don’t know 18 times tables off the top of my head by 3, but it's a lot of money.
I had no idea that that's how much one backpack was worth, and I didn't know they were real instruments either. I thought they were made for kids like they were toys. The fact that they're real instruments is even better.
I had a feeling that they were real because they were heavy, but it's crazy. First of all, I'm not a musically inclined person. To anybody who has read Maya's episode with us, she was talking about what parts she wants in her school play and how I'm going to be the wave. That is the description of my artistic talent, and that even is pushing the talent a little bit. I don't even think I could name six instruments, first of all. Let alone six instruments that could fit in a backpack.
The fact that they partner with so many different hospitals and are providing these backpacks, I want to put them on national news or something. I'm pretty sure it's pretty much a family-run organization. They have four little kids at home. The fact that they still have the energy to do this, we can never be tired again. We really hope you can support Ollie’s Orchestra by sharing their information on social media, spreading the word, and making a donation. We love them and want to help them continue to grow and provide more instruments to families.
Their field day is amazing. It's not just for people with pediatric cancer or people affected by pediatric cancer. If you are local in Montgomery County, I know that's where they had it in 2023. It was in Abington, Pennsylvania. We recommend going to check it out. They had the coolest vendors there as well. People were there with cupcakes, freeze-dried candy, and cotton candy. There was a beer tent. There were so many good things. There were different food trucks. There was also music going on the whole time. It was so much fun for all the different ages. I wish that I had brought my nieces with me to it because they would've gotten a kick out of it.
Why didn't I go? Where was I?
You were at Mallory's bachelorette party.
That was fun too, but I am drawn to food trucks and beer tents so I will be there this 2024.
We hope to see you there as well. She said June 2nd, 2024 or June some other time.
We'll get the date.
We will share it with you guys. We'll make sure it's on our event calendar as well as all our social media. We'll see you guys there.
We’ll see you soon.