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Style El Dorado County Foothills

Healing Havens

01/27/2015 12:18PM ● By Style

Photos by Dante Fontana © Style Media Group

Cinderella’s carriage is parked in a corner. Behind it, the spires of an elegant castle stand against a blush-pink sky. A teddy bear is perched on a pillow. Like a coachman at the ready, a young man who looks a lot like Justin Bieber stands to one side.

Wait. That is Justin Bieber.

OK, long before he was paintballing his neighbor’s house, Justin Bieber was just an innocent teen crush, a handsome kid swooned over by girls young and, well, really young.

Like Makayla.

The carriage, you see, is actually a bed, beautifully hand-carved, just for her. That Disney-esque castle and pink sky? They’re painted on one of Makayla’s walls. Biebs is a life-size cutout. For Makayla, this wasn’t just her room: It was her world. In her other world—the real one—she was fighting cancer.

At the time, she was three.

Jennifer Donchenko of Folsom created this room, this world. It’s one of 14 she, her husband Daniil, and friends Amy and Jimmy Bagshaw have designed through their Sweet Dreams Foundation. They call themselves the “Dream Team,” and together they soften the harsh reality of being a kid facing a terrible disease.

The seeds for Sweet Dreams were sewn early; when she was just a girl, Jennifer went through two life-changing experiences. “My grandfather passed away from mesothelioma when I was 11,” she says. “While he was passing, my mother and I moved in with him.” She remembers the plainness of his room: “Four white walls” is how she describes it. At the same time, a classmate was stricken with cancer. “Seeing Lisa go from an athletic, beautiful young girl to very quiet, her hair falling out, very broke my heart.” Lisa, she recalls, had a beautiful room. Those events, and those rooms, stayed with her.

Jennifer went to college for interior design, but in class found herself “constantly” doodling designs for bedrooms—kids’ bedrooms. Even after graduating and working as a designer for some big-name furniture makers, she kept doodling. She wasn’t sure why, other than “it felt like something I was supposed to be doing.” Finally, it hit her: Thinking back to her grandfather and Lisa, she remembered their rooms, and her vision became clear. She started Sweet Dreams in 2006. 

Each room is customized to the child’s wishes, so before they create a room, Jennifer and her team meet with the family to generate a plan. Makayla loved princesses (and Justin Bieber). Facing a brain tumor, Jennifer says 13-year-old Cassidy asked for a “glamorous teen lounge, complete with a nail salon!” Three-year-old Coco, fighting leukemia, loved fairy tales, so the walls of her room were transformed into a flower garden. Her headboard is a huge Technicolor butterfly and fairy wings “hang everywhere,” says her mother, Beth, who says the room helped Coco heal after months of chemo. “It gave Coco a safe, peaceful haven. She needed to recover but, more importantly, she needed the opportunity to just be a child. Coco spends many hours playing in her room. It’s definitely her ‘happy place!’”

Despite the cost of a room averaging around $5,000, Jennifer says the families don’t pay. Supporters donate much of the work, from materials to labor. Artistic Wood Designs of Placerville does most of the bed frames; and Amy, a gifted artist, paints all of the murals. The Dream Team did five rooms last year. Their goal for 2015 is six. Five years from now, she’d “love to be opening chapters so we can serve children nationwide.” But before that happens, they need dependable funding and large sponsorships. That’s their dream.

Meanwhile, applications come in, candidates are chosen and projects are scheduled. Of the 14 children who received rooms, 12 are still alive and healing, including Makayla, Cassidy and Coco. “Sweet Dreams changed us,” says Beth. “They didn’t only create an incredible room for Coco; they gave our family a new beginning.”

And that is as real as it gets.

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Find more of Tom's Takes here, and make sure to catch Tom on the Pat and Tom Morning Show on New Country 105.1 or follow Tom on Twitter @kncitom.

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