New Influencers

At a very young age, Sara Wasserman understood how the power of music could inspire, change, and heal people’s lives. Through a very unique and special childhood, Sara observed and witnessed this truth over and over again. Yet it was not until later in her life and career, that she realized how this knowledge would play an integral part in her opportunity to support and repair the country of Haiti after the devastating earthquake in 2010. During her first visit to Haiti and becoming witness to its devastation,  it was in the kids that Wasserman saw the light, hope, and positivity. Even with such poverty and despair, the community still believed. Sara’s life was forever changed. In passing a small gift of a guitar to a young boy on her first visit, a promise and realization were made. Sara began a commitment to the people, to a legacy and to the power of a universal language and in the process, a community began to rebuild and Music Heals International was born.


1. Who are you? What were you like as a child?

I am a free-spirited, artistic and creative person whose passions are music, children, and making a difference in people’s lives. As I child, I was very shy, very artistic and quiet, but also fearless. I definitely live, and always have lived, my life following my heart. I spent most of my time with my parents and other adults (mainly artists), as my dad used to take me on the road with him. When I started school, my dad would come to my class and play solo bass concerts for all the kids. I remember as a very young child, feeling how the power and strength of just one instrument could mesmerize and teach young kids.


2. Music is such a big part of your life- how has it defined your past and present, and where will it take you in the future? 

I grew up in a musical family – both my father and step-father were musicians. I spent my childhood on tour with Lou Reed, Bobby Weir and the Grateful Dead family, and so many others. It really was all I knew and was the most familiar experience to me. I always felt more at ease around musicians. I was blessed to have been exposed to the greatest artists in the world, which I now know is definitely not the norm! As a kid, for me, it was. One of my great memories was at 12 years old, on tour with Lou Reed through Europe, and on my 13th birthday in Belgium, jumping back on the bus after the show, with Lou and my dad surprising me with a chocolate cake as Lou sang Happy Birthday. This happened just as we were being led out of the festival stadium by police escorts! I know now how lucky I was to have had such a magical childhood. After losing both my dad and step-dad in the past year and a half, I feel my mission and work is even more important and I want to continue a musical legacy in their honor. To me, that means giving the gift of music to the children who need it most. For them to be able to use it as an outlet in their lives, as I was fortunate enough to do ( and to witness so many great artists, including my dad, do the same), I hope this will show these kids that they can do or be whatever they choose. It’s also giving them the tools to create the life that they deserve — this is a very big reason why I chose to start Music Heals International in Haiti.

3. What was your original connection to Haiti? And has Music Heals International become a reality?

I traveled to Haiti for the first time in 2012, two years after the earthquake which took 200,000 lives. Sean Penn had started the J/P Haitian Relief Organization immediately following the earthquake. Sean was the person who invited me to Haiti to teach music, and I invited my good friend Lukas Nelson to join me. We were there for 10 days and my life was forever changed by the heart and strength of this special country. During that first visit I met 15 year old Stanley, who had been living in the tent camp that was created by J/P HRO immediately following the earthquake. He is now 20 years old and one of our favorite Music Heals International teachers, and also family to me.  Lukas and I gave him his first guitar during that initial visit. Stanley was just starting to learn an instrument 5 years ago, and now plays multiple instruments, and has been an MHI teacher beginning from our launch in 2014. Following that first visit, I traveled to Haiti every 2 months, bringing with me instruments and songs for the kids in the community to learn. My love for the kids and the community diminished any fears I had of being in a new country and an unknown environment. My heart and intuition were definitely leading the way. There was definitely a drive beyond my control to do something bigger than myself.

I continued to travel back and forth every 2 months, leading music classes in Delmas 32  (one of the communities hit hardest by the earthquake). I used these classes as both a way for the kids to learn music, but also as a way for them to learn English. I spent those first few months building a strong relationship with the community and formed a very deep love for the kids and the Haitian culture. MHI, in only 4 years, has grown beyond what I originally imagined. We are launching our 4th school year in Sept 2017 and our program will run in 7 schools serving over 350 kids, including kids with special needs. We are a 501c3 and are partnered with J/P HRO and Little Kids Rock.


4. Tell us more about the development of MHI and bringing the Suzuki music program to hundreds of kids in Haiti.

MHI started in 2014, 2 years after my first trip to Haiti.  As I was traveling back and forth to Haiti and teaching music, I saw the deep need for the healing power of music for the kids there. They loved learning new songs and I saw their passion for music and the impact it was having on them. I knew that I wanted to fundraise to build a more solid music program, and also wanted to incorporate a proven curriculum and model. Through a friend, I met the amazing Dave Wish, founder of Little Kids Rock, the leading US nonprofit  for music education. Following that initial meeting, it was mutually decided that we would find a way to bring the LKR curriculum, based on the Suzuki method, to Haiti. It is now an over 300 page teaching manual featuring music for all instruments translated into French. I pitched the idea to J/P HRO, started fundraising immediately, and a few months later, LKR’s team was with me in Haiti training Haitian teachers. We began MHI in J/P HRO’s Community Development Campus and at their school Ecole de L’Espoir with only 60 kids. Three years later, our program is in 7 schools and serves 350 kids both in and outside of Delmas 32. In 2016, we launched a program for special needs kids which is very dear to my heart. In a country like Haiti, with very scarce resources, children with special needs are given no outlet and no support due to the lack of education about kids with disabilities. I knew that we needed to incorporate them into our program and am so thankful that we have had that opportunity. This program is definitely an important focus for MHI’s future.

5. Who are your role models in life? In business?

My parents are definitely my role models in life. Even though my dad is no longer here, he continues to inspire people all over the world with his music. He was the kindest person and always took the time to say “thank you” – something so simple, but so important. He inspired me with his passion and dedication to music as well as being able to balance having a family and always putting me first. My mom is my best friend and biggest support. She is definitely the strongest person I know. She managed both my dad and step-dad and created two amazing careers. I am blown away by her strength, perseverance, and positivity through the most difficult of times. I try to emulate that, it’s definitely a daily practice though. I have always admired Oprah Winfrey for her fearlessness, integrity and deep spirituality. She works and lives from her heart and is such an inspiration to me both in business and in life.


6. What was your biggest a-ha moment?

The first time I performed live – I was literally thrown into the fire. My dad and Bobby Weir invited me to sit in with their band, RatDog, at Shoreline Amphitheater for an audience of 10,000 people. Following a set by one of my biggest influences, Bonnie Raitt, I performed a song that my dad wrote with Jim Capaldi from the band Traffic called “Solid Ground”. It was just me and my dad on bass. I was terrified but when I walked on that huge stage and stood next to my dad, I literally had no fear. Another life changing moment for me was at age 13 in Europe, during one of my dad’s and Lou Reed’s summer tours – I was standing on the side of the stage, watching Elvis Costello (he was performing at the same festival) on stage with only a guitar, performing for at least 100,000 people. You could literally hear a pin drop. I remember just standing there completely mesmerized at how one artist could command a stage and audience in that way.

7. Describe a day in the life for Sara Wasserman?

When I’m in Haiti and in CA my days are very different. No day is ever the same in Haiti! My days consist of going to each school that we work with, both in Delmas 32, and the surrounding communities, meeting with my amazing team on the ground at J/P HRO, practicing with the kids and working with our teachers (we have 25 currently and 3 full-time team members) When I’m in CA I always start out my day either at yoga or at the gym. Both are a huge part of my life, as are my health and taking great care of myself. I also meditate. Following that, I work all day on fundraising, both for our multiple benefit concerts, as well as working with the amazing donors who have supported MHI from the very beginning. I try to keep a good balance but it’s not always easy! However, to grow and run a new organization, you have to make sure you’re putting your strongest self forward each day, which is why I always focus on my health first.


8. What is the forecast for MHI in 2017-2018?

We are launching our fourth school year in Haiti, in partnership with J/P HRO and Little Kids Rock, in September ’17, and continuing to grow. We will increase from 6 to 7 schools and will work with over 350 kids this year. We are strategically planning our long-term growth, but I am careful not to grow too fast and want to focus on the improvement and growth of each kid in our program. We are also expanding our music program for special needs kids. A documentary called “Fingerprints” directed by Don Hardy, and featuring MHI’s work, is premiering at the 40th Anniversary of the Mill Valley Film Festival on October 7th. Fingerprints is the story of two music programs for kids – one in Haiti and one in California — that come together virtually, to record two songs. Along the way, the kids learn that, even though their lives are very different, their spirit, ambition, and love of life are very similar, and that music is the universal language that connects us all. I am so excited that this film will now be seen by the world! We will also have our first Chicago benefit on 11/1 featuring four of Nashville’s top songwriters. Following that, we have our 4th annual benefit in my hometown, Mill Valley, CA – at Bobby Weir’s Sweetwater Music Hall, featuring dear friends and family members.

9. How has Haiti changed you?

Haiti has changed me in every way imaginable. I know more than ever how fortunate I am, and that obviously we can’t control where we are born or the circumstances that we are born into. The level of joy and spirit that Haitians have on a daily basis, despite such extreme poverty, is such a lesson. I live my life now first and foremost knowing that our perspective on life changes everything. Over this past year and a half, I have lost both my dad and step-dad – something that I could never have imagined happening at this point in my life. When I lost my dad, I had no preparation or warning. Without the gift of being able to focus my energy on work that serves a higher purpose, I would not have survived the past few months. Haiti and the spirit of its people gave me that.

 10. Where do you see yourself in five years?

In 5 years I see MHI continuing to expand on a national level in Haiti. I see my team in the US expanding as well. Personally, I see myself starting my own family, and of course raising my kids in the very unique way I was raised, surrounded by music, and lots of love from both countries. I would love to make sure my dad’s legacy is carried forward and that his music lives on forever. I will be working on a music project that is dedicated to him.

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