Making dreams reality, one room at a time

A nonprofit, student-led group redesigns bedrooms for kids who are critically ill for free.

by Liz Anderson

Thirteen-year-old Jessica Helmbreck has battled bone cancer most of her life.

But despite constant chemotherapy sessions, she’s remained positive, surrounded by her family, friends and a redesigned room that gleams with bright pink walls and paintings of flowers and butterflies.

Jessica’s room was the first project for the University of Minnesota student group Designing Dreams, which redesigns rooms for critically ill children. This year, the team of students became a nonprofit organization to gain additional funding with the goal of changing more children’s lives.

The group started in 2012 when Designing Dreams president Lauren Curwick wanted to combine her passion, pediatric oncology, with volunteer work.

“It’s definitely made my college experience that more enjoyable,” said Curwick, who is now a senior. “I want to make a direct impact because there are so many volunteer opportunities, but [in] a lot of them, you aren’t able to interact and make a difference in children’s lives.”

As sophomores, Curwick and four of her friends from the University started redesigning rooms for two children in Wisconsin, the students’ home state.

The student organization primarily funded the early redesigns through personal connections and bake sales, Curwick said. But now as a nonprofit charitable
organization, she said, Designing Dreams hopes to receive more donations of large items, like furniture and electronics.

“We decided that in order to receive grants from certain companies, like Target or Ikea … we had to be a nonprofit,” said Becca Scott, Designing Dreams’ public relations officer. “It’s just much easier to get those [items].”

The organization received $1,500 this summer from the Peder Hedberg Foundation, a group that provides funds to nonprofit organizations that work with children.

“[Designing Dreams] definitely fits within the category of [helping] kids with special needs,” said Paul Hedberg, president of the foundation. “… When we heard about Designing Dreams, it just sounded like one of the most creative ideas that we had ever heard of.”

The group took on projects from family friends during its early years. But now, with the official organization in place, families with critically ill children ages 3 to 13 need to apply for a bedroom redesign. The group will start its next project, making over a Minnesota child’s room, in January.

But children who don’t receive a room makeover can still be featured as a “child of the month” on the Designing Dreams website and receive a gift basket, Scott said.

And the giving doesn’t stop once the group finishes with its projects.

Jackie Helmbrecker, Jessica’s mother, said the Designing Dreams team still takes her daughter out for frozen yogurt and keeps in contact with her.

Scott said she and her friends plan to continue the nonprofit after they graduate this year, adding that they all want to keep affecting and improving children’s lives.

“There are no words to describe seeing the children’s faces when they [first] walk into their room,” Curwick said.

Jessica Helmbrecker’s only request for the group during the redesign was that it create a pink-themed bedroom with her favorite quote etched on the wall: “Though she be but little, she is fierce.”

After the room makeover and being a part of Designing Dreams, Jackie Helmbrecker said her daughter is paying it forward by bringing treats to children at the hospital where she receives chemotherapy.

“I really think that each kid that gets a room should pay it forward and do something for the next kid,” she said.