The 41-year-old musician has performed free concerts at more than 250 children's hospitals

By Michelle Boudin
January 01, 2015 06:50 PM
Songs for Kids

Like many musicians, Josh Rifkind spent much of last year on tour.

He logged 32,000 miles in a used minivan crisscrossing the country doing concerts. “I was on the road the whole year,” he says. “It was pretty epic.”

But the 41-year-old-guitar player’s gigs are a little different from those of most rockers.

Rifkind, who lives in Atlanta, has performed his music – which ranges from covers of Taylor Swift songs to “Old MacDonald” – for free for thousands of sick kids at more than 250 children’s hospitals across the country since 2007. Often, he and his fellow musicians set up shop in the lobby or at the bedside of a child.

It didn’t start out that way. Right out of college as a struggling musician, Rifkind formed a band but switched to managing other bands when he realized he had a lisp and wasn’t the best singer. “I figured out that my best stuff was the talking parts in between the singing,” he jokes.

Still, he loved music and he wanted to make a difference. His father was his inspiration.

Early Inspiration

After he was born, doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with Rifkind when he wasn’t breathing properly. His dad, Ken, then a recent medical school graduate, diagnosed his newborn son with a collapsed lung, saving his son’s life.

“I wanted to do something that combined those two worlds, my appreciation for [my father] and my love for music. And so, in 2007, Rifkind launched Songs for Kids.

Rifkind and a rotating cast of fellow musicians develop sets, rehearse, then play for children in the hospitals. They sometimes even help kids record their own songs.

“To be able to make a connection with kids in need, and kids you don’t know, it’s just very exciting, very rewarding,” says Rifkind, a free spirit with a self-deprecating wit who draws a small salary from his nonprofit. To fund his concerts, he holds a big annual fundraiser that has featured artists including Pete Yorn and Arrested Development.

An Hour of Normalcy

Hospitals appreciate Rifkind’s music. “The talented musicians with Songs for Kids provide a shining moment in the day of our children and families,” says Michael Vaccaro, chief nursing officer at Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“Songs for Kids serves as a very therapeutic activity for children facing really scary diagnoses,” Vaccaro says.

Families say Rifkind’s music and friendly manner lifts their children’s spirits in the toughest times.

Rifkind first met Brody Cole when the 5-year-old, battling mitochondrial disease, was in and out of the hospital.

Brody never missed a Songs For Kids performance. “He would rock out to ‘Old McDonald’ and ‘Wheels on the Bus,’ grabbing a microphone and sharing the stage with Josh and his band mates,” recalls his mother, Kristi Cole Griggs of Columbus, Georgia.

“It was amazing. It was an hour of normalcy for us,” Griggs adds.

Tragically, Brody passed away five years ago, but his mom still attends fundraisers for Songs For Kids. “Josh was amazing with Brody. He’s found his purpose and I want to continue to support him,” Griggs says.

Micah Arnholt (left) and Josh Rifkind
Lisa Arnholt

Eighteen-year-old Micah Arnholt is battling celiac disease and Gardner syndrome and has been in and out of the hospital for the past year and a half. Rifkind and Songs for Kids have been there every time.

“To see my kid smile and have such a good time was amazing,” says Micah’s mom, Lisa Arnholt. “Micah has a really good attitude but its draining to never know what’s going on with his illness and then Josh comes in and everything gets better. Josh just comes in and makes his day brighter.”

Rifkind, who held his first kids’ concert at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta says that’s what it’s all about. He remembers a young boy who had been badly burned on his face. During six painful months in the hospital he’d hardly spoken to anyone.

But, Rifkind recalls, he made it to the Songs For Kids group performance and then trailed Rifkind for hours as he sang bedside for other kids.

“He looked at me and he said, ‘I will remember you’,” Rifkind recalls. “It was so profound. We don’t do this to make money or be famous. You hope you can have an impact. You think about your life and how you want to live it and in that one moment there was complete clarity.”

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Know a hero? Send suggestions to heroesamongus@peoplemag.com. For more inspiring stories, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine