Taylor Larkin, an 11-year-old battling leukemia, thought her bedroom was the scariest place on earth – until she came home from chemotherapy Tuesday and found it transformed into a Sophisticated Safari Teen Lounge. She’s no longer alone – there are statues of giraffes and zebras, shelves of carved elephant heads, a trundle bed with a cheetah print blanket, African photos and sculptures, even a desk with makeup mirrors and crocodile-skin veneer.
“It’s amazing,” Taylor said tearfully, as she threw her arms around designer Jennifer Donchenko and Taylor’s mom, Keri Larkin. “It’s more than I could ever imagine. I can definitely sleep in here now!”
Taylor’s new bedroom was created by Sweet Dreams, a Folsom-based nonprofit that has transformed 13 bedrooms into magical places of comfort and refuge for children ages 2 to 14 diagnosed with cancer and other potentially fatal illnesses.
“Twelve of those kids are still alive,” said Donchenko, who founded Sweet Dreams with her now-husband, Daniil, in 2006. Their creations, built and paid for by volunteers and donors, are based on each child’s fantasy.
Aimee – an 8-year-old battling xtroderma pigmentosa (XP), a disease that makes her too sensitive to sunlight to play outside, received a Hidden Ocean Room featuring an “ocean rock” for her to climb on. Braycen, a blind 5-year-old who’d been through multiple surgeries for a chromosome disorder, got a Park Bedroom with Trucks and Cars. Virginia, diagnosed with leukemia herself at 5, got an Under the Sea bedroom.
Taylor, clad in a knit turquoise cap with a flower stitched in, said she wished for a Sophisticated Safari Teen Lounge “because I love, love, love animal prints and I’ll be a teenager in January when I turn 12, so I want something I can grow into.” She ran her hand over her new “crocodile” desk and opened the many drawers.
“There’s no excuse not to do homework now,” her mom said.
“It’s the makeup vanity,” Taylor quipped, then admitted the thing she misses most is school.
She hopes to finally leave her Citrus Heights home and return to Valley Christian Academy in Roseville next year when she’s put on chemotherapy pills. “I love school,” she said, “I have the books and stuff, but the math they gave me is too hard – it’s not like I can raise my hand and ask the teacher.”
She’s become an expert on chemotherapy and anti-emetic drugs and plans to become a pediatric oncologist. After she was diagnosed with cancer in February, she underwent chemotherapy that caused a blood clot in her brain, triggering two seizures while she was alone in bed, and for nine months she’s slept with her mom or in a hospital bed.
“I’ve had setbacks and side effects,” she said, “But you’re getting the stuff to fight cancer – you have to keep a good attitude to get through this or you’re just taken down.”
Taylor said when she learned she had cancer, “I asked, ‘Why me?’ and my mom said, ‘Why not you?’At first it’s scary, but it’s something you have to deal with.”
So the girl who sings and plays the ukulele, does hip-hop, salsa and break dances, loves sports and is starting to notice boys decided not to let cancer beat her. “It’s been a rough road but she’s one tough girl,” said her mom, who quit her job at Target to take care of Taylor while her dad removes asbestos and lead from buildings to pay the bills.
Taylor’s family heard about Sweet Dreams from a family friend and applied, competing with about 300 other children also confronting life-threatening illness. She ended her audition video by saying, “If you ever need a singer or performer, I write my own songs and stuff. ... Hit me up!”
Jennifer Donchenko connects with Taylor because when she was 11, she spent a summer taking care of her grandfather who was dying of lung cancer.
“To relieve his pain, I massaged his tumors until my hands almost fell off,” Donchenko said. “The night before he passed, he gave me a kiss on my forehead and said God was taking him home.”
That same year, she had a friend who died from a brain tumor.
“I watched her go from being a really popular, fun girl with beautiful hair, and all her hair fell out and chemo took her down to skin and bone,” she said. “So I knew I had to do something with my life to impact children.”
Donchenko, who also raises funds by teaching yoga, got the idea for Sweet Dreams while in college, and realized she could combine her math skills with her passion for interior design and helping kids. She doesn’t charge for the dream bedrooms.
“I wanted to design for families who can’t afford me and need their dream spaces,” she said. “Our goal is by getting to know these children and their families, we can give them a place to to heal in their own home, their very own retreat.”
Her husband, an immigrant from Russia, is a skilled carpenter who put in a wood-panel wall in Taylor’s bedroom. Another member of her team, Amy Bagshaw, helped design the room, and several dozen local businesses and corporations kicked in.
Taylor, who spent 42 days in a hospital several months ago, was brimming with excitement. She rubbed the black bristle hair on a zebra statute and said, “We can use it for a broom.” She looked at the team of volunteers that made her room a safe haven and said, “It’s amazing how they do this for children – they have to be some selfless people.
“I can definitely sleep in here, and if I get scared, my mom can come in and sleep on the trundle bed.”
Sweet Dreams hopes to build its own retreat in Folsom offering donation-based yoga and cooking classes, Reiki classes to relieve stress, and medical experts including visiting doctors, dietitians and counselors. For more information, go to www.facebook.com/SweetDreamsFoundation, call (916) 220-3203 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.