A room filled with hope is the gift that an extraordinary group of volunteers is giving back to children with life-threatening illnesses.

San Ramon resident Shirley Ham, an interior designer by profession, directs the Bay Area chapter of Special Spaces. She brought the Tennessee-based organization to the Bay Area about two years ago and has surrounded herself with a host of volunteers who turn a child's dream room into reality with bedroom makeovers and much more.

Ham, the mother of three daughters, two of whom endured serious illnesses, knew she was called to do this work when her daughters recuperated and regained their health. Children with life-threatening illnesses are referred to Special Spaces by their doctors, nurses, social workers, hospitals, friends and families. The Special Spaces volunteers then meet with the child.

The children are encouraged to dream, imagine and "get excited about what kind of room they want," said Ham. Measurements and plans are made, and the work begins. On average, each room makeover costs about $4,000 and the process, from referral to revealing, takes about three months.

It's all about giving back, says Todd Wiegel, a self-employed licensed contractor from Pleasanton who has been lending his talents to Special Spaces ever since a client of his turned him on to the organization. From painting and installing crown molding to hanging curtains and wiring light fixtures, Wiegel says he takes his weekends after working all week at TW Construction to do whatever they need to help transform a child's bedroom.


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Wiegel says he is often accompanied by his sons, Zack, 14, and Justin, 12, who are as handy as their dad and help out where they can. Mom Sherri works weekends but supports their efforts. The "reveal," the day the child gets to see his or her remodeled room, is Wiegel's favorite part of the process, and he admits that he chokes up when he sees the child's reaction.

"It's an awesome feeling to see the appreciation they (the children) show."

"It's not all about us but what we can do for others," Wiegel added. "I hope it makes a difference and changes their little world."

"Their rooms are a place where they can heal and get away from doctors," says Ham, or a quiet haven to live out their last days. Each child and each room has a story to tell. Some of the stories have happy endings. The rooms, filled with their favorite colors and things, have given them a boost, a reason to continue fighting. Before her work with Special Spaces, Ham helped the Make a Wish Foundation redecorate a young girls room. The day of the reveal, the young girl received the bone marrow transplant that would save her life and a room that she said helped her to hold on and not give up her fight.

"I knew at that time it was my calling," says Ham. "This is what I'm supposed to do. I'm so blessed to make a difference and help these children fight."

This local chapter has worked on 20 rooms in as many months. Along the way there were challenges and surprises, and Ham says she didn't anticipate the response of the "the human spirit and people coming together." She adds, "The best people come together for the makeovers and give of their time."

Nancy and George Tatarka are but a few of the volunteers who have helped with the makeovers completed in the last 20 months. Nancy, who met Ham while studying interior design at Las Positas College says the children's environment is so important to their well-being. Having seen her own daughter suffer from a debilitating illness, said Ham, "I know how these parents feel. I have a little understanding what they are going through. We are all about bringing hope to the families."

"The stories are tough," said Nancy, but when you see those kids' faces, "you can't wait for the next one."

Just some of the volunteers include people like Greg Hennings, a local electrician with GSH Electric, and Kaitlin Gallagher, a recipient of a room makeover when she was battling leukemia. Since she regained her health she volunteers and raises money for the organization with her mom, Luci. Ham is also able to get help from many local businesses such as Mancini's Sleepworld, which donates the beds; Whole Foods Market, which donates lunches for the volunteers; and Best Buy, which donates electronics such as TVs, video games and more.

"It's exhausting work," says Tatarka, but she added, "a labor of love."

Special Spaces Inc., will be one of the beneficiaries of the 19 Fantasy luncheon and fashion show to be held Nov. 10 at the San Ramon Marriott Hotel and presented by the Dublin/San Ramon Women's Club. Stay tuned for more information about this upcoming event.

Contact Monica Lander at landerfamily@comcast.net.