August 17, 2013 4:08:16 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
There were no chants of "move that bus." "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" TV host Ty Pennington was nowhere in sight. There was, nevertheless, a joyous big reveal in Caledonia Aug. 10.
That is when 12-year-old Emily Kellum walked into her "new" room for the first time. With wide eyes and intermittent happy shouts, she explored her transformed surroundings -- powder pink walls dancing with murals of monkeys (her favorite animal), a sky-blue ceiling, flat screen television, a tactile sensory board and other wonders. Emily could not express her excitement in words; she stopped talking at about the age of 5 or 6 and has been diagnosed with severe autism. But her pleasure was plain for all to see, especially the volunteers of Rebecca's Rooms, the group that undertook the makeover.
Reid and Cindy Carter of Caledonia founded the nonprofit organization to honor the memory of their young daughter Rebecca, who died in 2010. The beloved child, who had attended New Hope Elementary School, had a chromosome abnormality called Trisomy 13, or Patau syndrome, that triggered multiple disabilities and medical problems. She had also been diagnosed with autism. The couple's older daughter Kayla, 21, suffers from even more severe affects of Trisomy 13.
The Carters know firsthand how important a special needs child's environment can be. Rebecca's Rooms mission is to provide those children with a newly remodeled and decorated room customized to their personality and unique challenges.
"Every child should have a special place to call their own," said Reid Carter, who has turned his and his wife's personal loss into a giving legacy. "A child's room should be fun, stimulating and even relaxing when needed. We want to provide that for as many children with disabilities as possible." Emily Kellum's room is the organization's second makeover; the first was in June.
The Carters are also sensitive to the stress and isolation parents of special needs children live with every day. They live it themselves.
"We just want to let other parents know that there are people out there that care, that we know the situation they're in," Reid added.
Emily's parents, Jim and Melissa Kellum, certainly felt that support when more than 20 volunteers reported to the Kellum's home in the early evening of Aug. 9. The family, including Emily and her 16-year-old sister, Shelby, were surprised with an array of gift cards and treats, and sent off to enjoy a night at the Fairfield Inn and Suites. As soon as the Kellums were away, the crew went to work with paint brushes and carpentry tools. They converted the door to Emily's bedroom into a Dutch door, and added exterior sun screens to bedroom windows, to shade from heat and light.
Volunteers, including several from Old Navy, made a hands-on activity board with a variety of textured tasks Emily could indulge in. Her tubular frame bunk bed was repainted and decorated with a vine motif, to complement the jungle wall murals painted by artists Gail Forstner and Ashley Rowel. A new collection of stuffed monkeys filled the top bunk. There were other thoughtful touches, too.
Cindy Carter made water bottle "shakers" for Emily, filling plastic bottles with water and oil, glitter and beads. It was something she had done for Rebecca.
"I was always thinking and researching with Rebecca. You never know what's going to work with these children," said Cindy, who revamped her daughter's room frequently to keep it stimulating.
When the Kellum family returned to the house the second day, everyone clustered around to watch Emily's reaction. They were not disappointed.
"She can't tell you anything -- but she can," smiled her father, watching Emily explore the room and leap with delight as she spied the new TV.
Her mother explained, "She loves 'Barney,' 'Blues Clues,' Dora' -- anything with music."
"When we're in the car, she even puts my hand to the radio if she doesn't like the song," Jim Kellum added.
For Rebecca's Rooms volunteers, the reveal was reward in itself.
Reid Carter admitted, "One of the most fun times I have is when we tell the parents to be back by 3 o'clock, or whatever time it needs to be, and they come in."
Watching Emily happily rock back and forth on her bed, hugging a new stuffed monkey, Rebecca's Rooms board member Steven (Smiley) Sims of Hamilton said, "Her reaction, that's the 'worth it' part, right there."
Board member Denene Thomason of West Point has always had a heart for children, and previously cared for a foster child with autism. But working with her fellow volunteers has opened her eyes to how emotionally draining that care-giving can be on a long-term basis.
"I would call these parents (we've worked with) strong and courageous, even though they may not call themselves that," she said.
The Rebecca's Rooms board, which also includes Mindy Matherne of Columbus, will soon be eager to tackle a third project, to be selected from applications submitted through their website, rebeccasroom.com. Emily Kellum's room was nominated by an uncle. Thomason spearheads fundraising and said the board would really like to form ongoing partnerships with area businesses. A home improvement business, in particular, would be a blessing.
Volunteers are grateful for an area motorcycle club that hosts a benefit poker run. And a chicken plate dinner is tentatively planned for early October in Columbus.
Businesses including the Fairfield Inn and Suites, Harveys, Peppers, Eden MediSpa, Southern Awning and Construction, Game Stop and Newell Paper Co. were a major part of the success of the makeover of Emily's room. The group welcomes others willing to come on board.
The Kellum family is deeply grateful, not only for the physical transformation of their daughter's room, but for the inspiring connections it brought into their lives.
"I fell in love with Reid and Cindy right off the bat, for one thing because Emily and Rebecca were so similar," said Melissa Kellum. "They've shared many experiences with us; it's been heart-warming. We have an overwhelming sense of gratitude (for the room). I was tickled with what they did."
In the week since the reveal, Emily has been rediscovering her new room a little each day, to the delight of her family. And Reid and Cindy Carter have allowed themselves a sense of fulfillment, knowing Rebecca is looking down on them, Reid shared. Rebecca's Rooms is changing lives and gaining momentum, one room at a time.
"This type of stuff is infectious," smiled Emily's dad, Jim. "Now we want to help with the next project."
For more information about Rebecca's Rooms, contact Reid Carter at 662-251-0627 or Cindy Carter at 662-251-8681. Or visit rebeccasrooms.com.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.