Singing, playing the guitar or keyboard and dancing — or doing all at once — help one young cancer patient at Cardon Children’s Medical Center cope with her treatment regimen.

She’s far from the lone patient at the Mesa hospital to enjoy the benefits of music therapy as they undergo radiation, chemotherapy, recover from surgery or experience myriad other procedures.

Eight-year-old Brittny Valenzuela was diagnosed with osteosarcoma — bone cancer — in June.

Since then the Chandler girl has spent pretty much every other week at Cardon, her paternal grandmother Susanna Hernandez said.

After Child Life Specialist Tracey Hawkins, who helped Brittny and her family, learned that Brittny loves music, she called in the hospital’s music therapist to work with Brittny.

Music Therapist Olivia Houck zips around the hospital with a cart of musical instruments so kids can play in their rooms. A piano and a stage are located in a room where kids can gather for group activities. It’s that room that the proceeds of an upcoming gala will pay to extensively expand, renovate and upgrade.

Dubbed “Sophie’s Place,” it’s an endeavor of the Forever Young Foundation, a project of the Steve Young family. The Forever Young Foundation is based in Mesa, founded by retired NFL quarterback Steve Young.

The facility at Cardon will be the third Sophie’s Place, all named in honor of Sophie Barton, a teenager who routinely sang and played music to patients at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. She died in 2010 while hiking at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints girls camp near Heber, Utah.

The first Sophie’s Place was built at Primary Children’s Hospital. The second was built at Sutter Children’s Center in Sacramento, California.

The Mesa facility will be the largest of the three and include a recording studio, a stage, seating and listening stations.

Therapy for kids

Therapists routinely work with children at Cardon because of the importance of “treating the child as a whole,” Hawkins, the child life specialist, said.

There are nine child life specialists and two assistants at Cardon, while Houck is the lone music therapist at the hospital.

Music provides children with an outlet to express what they’re feeling while hospitalized, Houck said.

Hawkins said hospital employees recognize that every interaction with every child is different. So, they use different approaches until they find a way to build rapport with the kids.

Music is key to all of that, the two specialists said, because it’s personal.

And, Houck said, “sometimes you just feel like getting up and dancing.”

Music also lets the therapists “meet the child where they are,” Hawkins said. Sometimes in a hospital young patients are talked about, not to, she said. But the therapists get on the same level as the kids.

Brittny’s story

Brittny has “always loved music,” grandmother Hernandez said. “She loves listening on her iPad, she likes Pandora and she Snapchats herself” while singing and dancing.

Hernandez has a touching cellphone video of her granddaughter walking around Cardon with Houck, a guitar and a microphone. Brittny stops at a patient room, asks what the boy’s name is, what his illness is and a few other questions.

Then, on the spot, she composes a song encouraging him to be strong as he readies for chemo treatments.

“It’s gonna be all right,” she sings as Houck strums the guitar. Brittny sways as she keeps singing, “You just have to be strong, just believe in yourself and I know you can do it.”

In a later interview, the little girl said she chose to sing to fellow patients as a way of saying thanks to everyone at Cardon.

“I’m just glad we have someone like Olivia,” grandmother Hernandez said. “She’s been great with Brittny and helped her a lot.”

Brittny hasn’t been able to go to school this year, but the third-grader at San Marcos Elementary in Chandler has a homebound teacher who’s keeping her up to date.

— Contact reporter Shelley Ridenour at 480-898-6533 or

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