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Social Impact Heroes: Dena Hammerstein of ‘Only Make Believe’ is showing that engaging a child’s imagination is a valuable part of the healing process

Only Make Believe is dedicated to the principle that engaging a child’s imagination is a valuable part of the healing process. Therefore every child in our audience takes an active part in creating a world of fantasy and fun in order to transcend the boundaries of the hospital walls. We perform for children in hospitals, […]

Only Make Believe is dedicated to the principle that engaging a child’s imagination is a valuable part of the healing process. Therefore every child in our audience takes an active part in creating a world of fantasy and fun in order to transcend the boundaries of the hospital walls. We perform for children in hospitals, care facilities and special education programs throughout the New York and Washington DC metropolitan areas, free of charge. We currently serve kids in over 60 facilities.


Ihad the pleasure to interview Dena Hammerstein of ‘Only Make Believe’ (OMB). OMB debuted in October 1999 at Rusk Institute’s Pediatric Unit, NYU Langone Medical Center, as a project of The James and Dena Hammerstein Foundation. Dena Hammerstein established Only Make Believe in memory of her husband James (son of theater legend Oscar Hammerstein), for his dedication to the theater and her own passionate love for children in need.


Thank you for joining us Dena. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

A combination of all my experiences has brought me to this career path: as an actress, a writer, a producer and a volunteer in hospital child life programs. So the story is how all these elements came together, and became Only Make Believe.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Only Make Believe is dedicated to the principle that engaging a child’s imagination is a valuable part of the healing process.

Therefore every child in our audience takes an active part in creating a world of fantasy and fun in order to transcend the boundaries of the hospital walls.

We perform for children in hospitals, care facilities and special education programs throughout the New York and Washington DC metropolitan areas, free of charge. We currently serve kids in over 60 facilities.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

There’s far too many interesting stories. Let me give you a couple of examples. Discovering during one of the performances that a selectively mute child was willing to speak and felt the freedom to take an active part in the show. The amazement from the hospital staff and the other kids when this happened was incredibly moving.

I’ll also never forget the effect of one of our shows on the mother of a very sick child. This particular child had so many wires and tubes coming from his little surgical gown, and yet as the show was in progress he started to laugh and join in. The relief and joy on his mother’s face was palpable and it’s a moment I will never forget.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when developing OMB? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

We are still making mistakes and still learning lessons. My favorite funny moment was when an email was mistakenly sent to a “would be” honoree that was not the most flattering of communications. We never ever succeeded with this “would be” honoree, but who knows, we might try again another year!

Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?

How about the little boy before he goes into surgery singing a song about not being scared anymore which came from one of our popular shows. We are thrilled if we can help children overcome their fears.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the mission behind OMB?

The three things that one wishes could happen:

  • No more children separated from their families
  • Sensible gun laws
  • Government support system to foster empathy, compassion and volunteerism

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To have a vision, to work with people who will respect your judgement, share ideas, and trust your sense of fairness.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  • It will never feel finished (it still isn’t)
  • Staffing is tough (it’s still tough)
  • Raising money sucks (It still sucks)
  • Nothing’s perfect (Ain’t that the truth)
  • Onwards and upwards (only direction to go)

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

To make very human feel safe and to make every human capable of compassion.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Always look on the bright side of life.” Because laughter is my favorite medicine.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Michelle Obama. She has all the qualities I admire: grace, dignity, intelligence, energy, loyalty, humor, fearlessness, empathy, fun and plus the most admirable wife and mother. And if Michelle wasn’t free, perhaps Roger Federer would be available…

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Follow @onlymakebelieve on Facebook/Instagram, and @OMB_DMV and @OMB_NYC on Twitter.

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