ST. LOUIS — A smile from a young child battling cancer was all it took for Maheetha Bharadwaj to begin her "Smiles with Music" project, which enlists teen volunteers to bring music to nursing homes and hospice care.
The idea came to her while volunteering at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Maheetha, then 14, would sometimes spend time waiting for her mother, a physician, by playing piano in the lobby of the Siteman Cancer Center.
"One time, I had just finished playing Taylor Swift's "Fifteen" on the piano, and a little girl came up to me and said the music was 'awesome,' " recalls Maheetha, now 16, of Wildwood. "Afterward her mom came up and said, 'Thank you for giving her that smile. She hasn't smiled in weeks.' "
Maheetha later learned the little girl had been there receiving cancer treatments.
"In the hours after the girl left, I didn't even remember her name, but what lingered in my mind was her smile — it conveyed to me the power of music," she explained on her website. "That evening, I realized I could use my passion to give back to my community."
Maheetha started sharing her music at a local assisted living center, playing piano for mentally challenged adults. That led her to start the teen volunteer group, "Smiles with Music," to "spread the joy of music to those who need it most."
She has become especially interested in researching the therapeutic value of music and cites studies on her website.
She encouraged her sister, Meghana, 12, a friend's family and classmates to join her. Maheetha has the support of her school, Thomas Jefferson in Sunset Hills, and several nursing homes, and has teamed with ArmHeart Hospice to bring music to dying patients.
She said the program also gives students a chance to complete community service programs.
Today, teens from Thomas Jefferson, Crestview Middle, Marquette High and Fort Zumwalt North Middle are playing classical string quartets and singing Abba or Beatles songs or whatever music patients like. A trio from Thomas Jefferson — sophomore Celina Lee on flute, and freshmen Tim Li on piano and Aaron Kim on violin — plays regularly at an area nursing home.
Sometimes the teenagers put down their instruments and talk to people, read to them or play bingo.
Maheetha hopes other teens throughout the area will sign up and continue even when she goes to college next year. She plans to study genetics or neuroscience and would like to delve into the chemical and neurological effects of music on the brain. Kathy Bott, executive director of Amheart Hospice, which works with the teens at some locations, said the program "enriches the lives of our terminally ill patients and their families.
"The children bring a little ray of sunshine."
Rebecca Robinson, 17, a friend Maheetha met at the Missouri Scholars Academy, plays violin in a quartet with three of her siblings, Emily, 13, Matthew, 11, and Michael, 14. They regularly visit nursing homes for Smiles with Music.
"You see the looks on their faces and see how much they enjoy it," Rebecca Robinson said. "It's a great feeling to help people."