Home, a word typically associated with safety and comfort, takes on a different meaning when you aren’t allowed to leave. For a child with a severe illness, home can feel like a place of captivity rather than retreat.
A national nonprofit, Savvy Giving by Design, was moved by this issue and found a way to combat illness with creativity. The mission of Savvy is to provide healing, comfort, and support by equipping teams of interior designers to transform rooms at no cost to families affected by medical crisis.
The local Denver chapter reached their one-year anniversary in January. The board of five women is celebrating by redesigning the room of 18-year-old Faith Albertson. At age 14, Faith was diagnosed with stage four cancer in her soft tissue. She has lost a lot of muscle and became bedridden in 2016. According to her parents, Tabitha and David Albertson, Faith’s illness has been an emotional uphill battle.
“Constantly sitting in her room and missing all of her high school years has been very traumatic on her,” Albertson says.
The president of the chapter, Kathy Helfrich, met Faith in December. She took that time to figure out Faith’s interests, which happen to be drawing, make-up, photography, old movies, and everything Disney. Helfrich is excited about creating a girly room specifically customized for Faith.
“When the kids are recovering and healing, their rooms is where they spend the majority of their time,” Helfrich says. Her goal is to meet each kid’s needs while making the space safe, functional, and fun. “With Faith, it’s about making her world a little bigger.”
Helfrich is an interior designer by profession and runs her own business, Be Happy Interiors. Before that she had a career in real estate. She knows houses, from the buying and the selling to the constructing and the designing. However, with Savvy she has been learning how utilize her creativity in a completely new way. Because every room must be adapted to each kid’s auto-immune system and medical needs, Helfrich does her best to see to see like an interior designer and a medical professional- of course, yielding to doctors and therapists when necessary.
The first time Helfrich and the Savvy team encountered this new way of design was with Owen Hurtado, a six-year-old with a brain tumor and autism. They redesigned two rooms for Owen and his sister, Brylei, last June.
The Hurtado family was living in a two-bedroom apartment when Owen was first diagnosed with cancer. Their medical insurance just wasn’t cutting it, leaving them to pay for MRIs and chemotherapy out of pocket. The moved into the basement of Owen’s grandparents to mitigate costs.
It was the perfect time for the Savvy ladies to come knocking on the door. According to the Hurtado family, Savvy’s process for doing the renovation was seamless. The Hurtado family filled out an application they found on Facebook, attended an interview, and were quickly selected. The team met with Owen and his sister, Brylei, to figure out how to best personalize their rooms.
Because of Owen’s chemotherapy, he is unable to go outside. His room features an indoor park that includes swings, sensory boards, and a treehouse filled with books to suit his love for reading.
“They did an amazing job of bringing the outside to Owen,” Hurtado says. “It may seem like a room makeover isn’t any big thing. But for these kids, it’s everything because they spend a whole day in their room.”
Hurtado is encouraged by the relationship that the Savvy team continues to foster with their family since the redesign. “You’re not just getting a room makeover, you’re getting friends,” she says.
Helfrich cherishes the relationship, too, and says that her motivation for volunteering with Savvy is the families. Savvy has shown her that everyone has unique talents and gifts, and no matter how different they are, they can be used to bless others.
“This takes one thing off of the family’s plate. Interior design, something so simple to us, is amazing to them,” she says.
The Denver chapter of Savvy is currently the only chapter in Colorado. Helfrich lives in Parker, but Faith’s home is located in Colorado Springs. As the chapter expands, Helfrich hopes to find designers and volunteers spread across the region to better facilitate matters like fundraising and finding local connections.
Jeni Fleck, a board member with the Denver chapter, thinks that Savvy has identified a need that is somewhat hidden. Though everyone is affected by diseases like cancer in some way, interior design isn’t the first thought most people have for medication. Fleck hopes that other interior designers, or people with similar skillsets, will hear about the work and be inspired to use their own talents.
“There’s probably hundreds of thousands of children with this need. Our goal is to service as many as possible,” Fleck says.
Fleck and Helfrich both agree that the Denver chapter is in a regrowth period, but they see the success of other chapters and are eager to see where the Denver one will go.
“We’re in this for the longevity,” Helfrich says.