At age 13, Mattie Stepanek passed away from a rare form of muscular dystrophy. But the young poet’s profound impact continues to ripple through his best-selling books, including Heartsongs, and the lasting impression he made on everyone, from world leaders to one special hospital visitor, Lisa Friedlander.
Lisa created the Heartsongs Fund in 2001 to honor Mattie and the Children’s National Hospital team’s heartfelt care for all patients, including Lisa’s own daughter, Jaclyn, and her cousin’s son, Nicolas.
In 2020, Lisa launched Teens with Heartsongs with co-director Ilana Kashdin. The program engages hundreds of high schoolers across the Washington, D.C. metro area to develop leadership and philanthropy skills, including by leading a peer-to-peer fundraising team at their school. These teen leaders raised more than $100,000 in 2022, totaling more than $330,000 since its founding, to benefit local kids and families at Children’s National.
Like Mattie, these students share a belief that you’re never too young to make a difference. Meet some of the Teens with Heartsongs:
Hannah Abraham, Langley High School freshman
Hannah joined Teens with Heartsongs out of interest in raising awareness and support for the lesser-known needs of families at Children’s National. Program leaders took note of her thoughtful questions, stellar communication skills and hardworking nature. Hannah is grateful to her team for the patience they granted her to grow throughout the experience.
“When the team unites and works together, what we create is amazing,” Hannah says. “It can help so many people.”
Djenabou Bokoum, Paint Branch High School junior
When Djenabou came across the opportunity to join Teens with Heartsongs and establish her school’s first team, she saw a chance to make a difference for local patients and families. The program celebrated her team for implementing one of the most creative fundraising projects and their strong social media presence. To create an event that would resonate with their school and community, they partnered with local food trucks for a lunch drive. The results: sweet success.
“A great place to start [making an impact] in your community is your own school,” Djenabou says. “There are always going to be people and organizations who could use and greatly appreciate your service. You just have to make the effort, and I promise it'll be so rewarding.”
Camryn Friedlander, Bullis School junior
Camryn ran the social media behind the Teens with Heartsongs overarching program. Each team leader’s creativity and dedication inspired her to extend her peers’ reach. She joined in celebrating Heartsongs’ 20thanniversary in October 2022 and is grateful to be a part of the future direction of the fund in support of Children’s National, rooted in the community-centered passion for local families that started it all.
“My involvement with Teens with Heartsongs for the past three years has taught me so much about myself and helped me to improve in ways that I never would’ve imagined going into the program,” Camryn says. “I’ve learned strong leadership skills that will take me far into the future.”
Katharine Kringel, Richard Montgomery High School senior
During the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown, Katharine found Teens with Heartsongs as a way to channel her energy into creating tangible change for D.C. area patients and families. Moving from team member to team leader to director of the Board of Teens, she matched her enthusiasm with grounded focus. To other young changemakers, she advises that teams can always be created, no matter how small.
“You have a mountain of responsibilities with school and your personal life, and not nearly as many resources as adults do,” Katharine says. “But there will always be someone else in your community who understands that and wants to help you.”
Olivia Vassiliou, Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart senior
Olivia worked with classmate Charlotte Weimer to lead the largest Teens with Heartsongs team in 2022. During the pandemic, Olivia recognized the immense need of people to be present for one another when possible, including for families at Children’s National.
“Togetherness is so important to me, and nurtures families every day, especially those going through trying times,” Olivia says. “As I learned more about the program, I felt a deep empathy toward the families in need of a home close to their hospitalized child.”
Charlotte Weimer, Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart senior
Charlotte, co-leader of the team that raised the most money in support of Children’s National, sees their success as a result of the passion they shared to make an impact for local families. She’s grateful to have Olivia as a true partner in the program and recognizes the power in shared identity for their all-female team.
“One of my favorite moments was announcing to our entire upper school in an assembly that we raised over $16,000,” Charlotte says. “There was so much cheering and clapping! It made me so proud of all the girls who participated in this program because we know we made a concrete difference in the lives of many families.”
Since its founding in 2001, Heartsongs has raised more than $2.5 million for patients and their families at Children’s National. The fund has helped purchase lifesaving equipment, enhanced education and supported the Patient Family Housing Program. In 2022, this support helped provide lodging to more than 380 families with more than 1,500 local hotel reservations, enabling families to remain close to their children receiving care at the hospital.
Learn more about the creation of Heartsongs and its impact on Children’s National. Visit Teens with Heartsongs or email [email protected] to find out more about the program. Applications open Spring 2023 for the fall semester.