Songs for Kids Foundation brings music into the lives of children with serious illnesses

The Atlanta-based nonprofit that pairs local musicians with hospitalized children at their bedsides
Songs for Kids Foundation Shaky Knees Atlanta
Nicolas Duncan, right, at the 2015 Shaky Knees Festival.

Photograph by Jessica Granger

Nicolas Duncan was just 13 when he opened the Shaky Knees Festival two years ago, playing keyboard and singing his own song alongside Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson. But if you think that took courage, just consider what the kid had already been through.

Three years prior Nicolas was diagnosed with Stage 4 lymphoblastic lymphoma, a rare form of cancer that required aggressive chemotherapy treatments. To help him through, his therapists introduced Nicolas to the Songs for Kids Foundation, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that pairs local musicians with hospitalized children at their bedsides. “For the kids it’s the most challenging time of their lives,” says Josh Rifkind, a former music manager who founded Songs for Kids in 2007. “You’re trying to brighten it a little bit with music.”

The foundation also provides an outlet for patients to express themselves by composing their own songs. Nicolas penned lyrics about his grueling treatments with the help of Dahlonega guitarist Spencer Durham. The resulting song, “Stars,” is named for the visual disturbances he experienced toward the end of each chemo session. “People are always writing uplifting songs about (cancer), like it’s all going to get better,” says Nicolas, now in remission. “That’s not how it felt [at the time].”

Songs for Kids then put Nicolas and Durham into a studio to record “Stars” and booked the pair, along with four other artist-patient duos, to play at Shaky Knees, where this year children will again warm up the crowd with original works. “I never even knew he could sing,” says Nicolas’s mother, Roya Duncan. “But the kid just flew.”

This article originally appeared in our May 2016 issue under the headline “Healing Harmony.”