Bringing the healing power of the arts to children with cancer

By Stephanie Banat

There’s something to be said about people who dedicate their lives to helping others. Godni Amir, a 44-year-old Brooklyn-based artist and singer, dedicates all of his time and effort to supporting children with cancer.

A life-long philanthropist, Amir has long had a passion for helping those in need and has shown that through his work.

“When did you first get involved with charity work?” he was asked.

“When I was a child in Israel,” Amir said, “I began volunteering to help children with Down syndrome and volunteering at local hospitals.”

In 2008, Amir had a life-altering experience that prompted him to start an organization supporting children with cancer.

Volunteers with A Free Bird, a nonprofit organization, put on a dance show at 10-year-old cancer survivor Elana Lai La’s 10th Birthday Party. Photo courtesy A Free Bird organization

“I witnessed the true healing power of the arts firsthand,” Amir said. “My own vocal teacher and her husband were diagnosed with cancer. Unfortunately, her husband passed away, but she was able to defeat cancer through her continued passion for the arts.”

One day, after their vocal lesson, Amir was feeling especially inspired by his teacher’s undying dedication to the arts, even during her hardest times. He went home and wrote a poem titled “A Free Bird,” which portrayed his teacher’s experience through his own eyes. Little did he know, this would later become the title of his charitable organization.

Since then, Amir has made it his full-time mission to bring the therapeutic power of the arts to those who could use them most — children.

“My main goal is to help every child in America affected by cancer, and then later to also open the doors to children with any kind of disability,” he explained. “You have to understand that you’re running a community now. You have to remember it’s not about you anymore — that’s the biggest thing. It’s not about you — it’s about the children, it’s about the mission.”

Since its founding in 2008, A Free Bird Organization has touched the lives of many children fighting cancer.

“We have worked with hundreds of children over the past 12 years,” Amir said. “Each year, we help around 100 children.”

Arnie the Magician performed a magic show for the children at Maimonides Children’s Hospital in Brooklyn. Photo courtesy A Free Bird organization

“We also work with various hospitals and pediatric cancer centers throughout New York and New Jersey,” he added. “Most recently, in July of 2020, we collaborated with Cohen Children’s Medical Center located in the New Hyde Park area of Nassau County. We were able to provide the center with art supplies and other essential materials such as much-needed masks amid the Covid-19 pandemic. ”

Today, A Free Bird’s programs continue to brighten up hospital rooms, provide entry into top-notch concerts and shows, and inspire children to express themselves during and beyond their time of treatment.

A Free Bird works as a third-party agent that reaches out to well-known artists and facilities and asks them if they are willing to provide children with services that they’re interested in — free of charge.

What is the most rewarding part for Amir? “The smiles on the children’s faces when they walk into fashion week and get star treatment,” he said, “or when they see their art work in an exhibit at an art gallery.”

At the heart of A Free Bird’s mission is its belief that the arts are not only mentally enriching, but also improve one’s physical health state. As A Free Bird’s website notes, studies have shown that artistic interventions to improve clinical outcomes, reduce hospital stays, lessen pain and improve moods in patients contending with chronic diseases.

Its website explains that beyond these physical benefits, arts education gives children a deeper sense of purpose in life by showing them that they have hidden talents and that they can express themselves through creative outlets. The arts allow pediatric cancer patients to do things that they find truly exciting, things “outside the box” of everyday life.

Falyn Vega, a 22-year-old cancer survivor and singer, described her road to recovery while working with A Free Bird organization.

“I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma when I was in seventh grade,” Vega explained. “I learned about my cancer when I noticed a small lymph node in my neck. While I thought nothing of it at first, it started to grow and spread to my collarbone. This is when my mother suggested I get it checked out, and we found out it was cancer…. I was going through a very difficult time mentally when A Free Bird reached out to me and asked me to be the face of their ‘I am’ campaign. I was so very excited and felt so honored to do this….I love when I get the opportunity to help other kids in need.”

Vega went on to explain how music helped her to cope with her illness.

“Music has always been my escape,” she said. “I love singing and I love playing instruments. The arts made it easier for me to manage with my illness, and gave me hope that there were brighter days ahead, which was the most important thing to me — having this hope.”

Like many other young people that A Free Bird has empowered, Vega was blown away by the incredible resources the organization connected her with, and the doors the organization opened for her as an aspiring artist.

Children take part in arts and crafts with Free Bird volunteers at Maimonides Children’s Hospital. Photo courtesy A Free Bird organization

“I really, really never thought that one day I would ever get to perform at Radio City like I did, let alone, Madison Square Garden. That’s crazy!” Vega said, “I still can’t believe I was able to get that opportunity, and it’s really great because I think, as a cancer survivor, I will be able to inspire other children who are going through the same thing. I thank Godni so much for giving me the opportunity to express how I am a Free Bird, how I am inspired by the arts, and how I would love to inspire every other child on the planet.”

Similar to Vega, 17-year-old cancer survivor and artist Chandlir Radcliffe spoke about using music as her creative outlet during her battle with cancer.

“I’m now 17 years old. I was diagnosed with neuroblastoma when I was just born…Music has always been a way for me to express myself and a great distraction from all the dull parts of life,” Radcliffe explained. “Expressing myself through playing instruments and singing helps me refocus any negative energy I have into something positive.”

A Free Bird helped push Radcliffe forward in her music career by connecting her with renowned artists and helping her record her first single.

“A Free Bird really opened my eyes,” she said, “to see the fact that I have a gift that not many people have. I have the gift of being able to touch people with my music. I have my own single out there now that A Free Bird helped me release. Now, my dream is not just a dream anymore. It’s becoming a reality. I now get to say that I’m living my dream.”

Radcliffe had encouraging words for children battling cancer and for fellow young, aspiring artists.

Tyriee received an one-on-one keyboard lesson from volunteer Hank. A Free Bird’s Take Flight Program provides pediatric cancer patients, ages 4 to 18, with one-on-one access to creative mentors. Photo courtesy A Free Bird organization

“I think it’s important that every child knows they are not going through this fight alone,” she said “I also recommend the therapy of arts activities to anyone who is battling an illness. My advice is to find something you are passionate about and stick with it. Don’t let fear get in your way. You got this!”

Amir said A Free Bird aims to inspire, educate and celebrate artists. In doing so, the organization has seen major transformations and growth among the children whom its volunteers have worked with, and they predict that these young adults will only continue pursuing their dreams and achieving greatness.

When asked what the arts mean to him, Amir replied, “Art means life. It is a bit of oxygen you give to a child, and most of all, it is a purpose to live for.”

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