Jenny Hull gathered 30 energized teens around her in the lobby of UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital: “The most important thing today is that we have to be super, super quiet, OK? And really wash your hands as you go in and out.”
And with that, the teens in Junior Room Crew — many of them students at area schools, including St. Francis, Westridge, Mayfield Senior and Flintridge Sacred Heart — went to work transforming 24 hospital rooms from impersonal, cold spaces into personalized, colorful rooms incorporating the interests and tastes of the patients inhabiting them.
Junior Room Crew is a branch of Once Upon a Room, the L.A.-based nonprofit that reimagines children’s hospital rooms to lift the spirits of young patients facing serious, life-threatening illnesses or acute trauma.
Once Upon a Room decorates six to 12 rooms each week at four Southern California hospitals, including Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, Children’s Hospital of Orange County and the children’s wings of Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where Josie Hull joined her friends on that Friday afternoon in late-spring.
As the teens prepared to retool each room with the decorative flourishes and toys they’d toted up in wagons, Josie Hull was stopped by a nurse who reacted as though she’d just seen a celebrity, telling the 16-year-old, “I know you!”
Indeed, Josie Hull is recognizable at UCLA Mattel. She and her twin sister, who were born conjoined at the head, were separated there as babies in a 23-hour operation that was conducted by a 50-member medical team.
Josie Hull, a rising junior at La Cañada High School, has spent lots of time since then in hospital rooms, episodes that showed her mother, Jenny, how much better Josie’s mood was when they dressed up the place with items from home.
So they asked themselves: Why not do this for other kids?
For more than four years, they have been. Jenny Hull estimates they’ve revamped an estimated 1,000 rooms so far.
“It just makes me happy to give back to the kids,” Josie Hull said. “And I like to decorate with my friends.”
“It’s eye-opening how unwelcoming the children’s rooms are,” said her friend Ford Johnson, a Pasadena resident who attends Loyola High School and is vice president of the Junior Room Crew, which is designed to offer teens and children the rare hands-on opportunity to serve and develop a giving spirit.
“You wouldn’t expect that,” Johnson added. “You’d expect some color. I get that for a 40-year-old man it makes sense, but for a 7-year-old girl, you’d expect something of a theme.”
During the recent event, it took the teens only a couple of hours to completely alter the appearance of all 24 rooms in the intensive care unit with items organized thematically, ranging from plush “Frozen” characters to bright “Super Mario” props.
“We know what goes in and what works and what doesn’t,” said 16-year-old Siena Dancsecs, who has been decorating hospital rooms with the Hulls since she was 11 and now is president of the Junior Room Crew, which she helped found.
“When we started, we spent money on little things you realize you don’t need — the piggy bank, the random small toy,” she said. “But you’d rather spend it on the bedding and the sheets and all that stuff. Or you figure out what they can do and you get that, so it’s not like you’re just buying a generic toy.”
Dancsecs said they’ll deliver a small nail salon to someone whose hands aren’t steady to encourage the patient to work on her coordination, or a miniature basketball court to lure a kid out of bed and inspire increased activity.
The experience inspired at least three Junior Room Crew members to decide they want to go into pediatric care, Dancsecs said.
In addition to donating their time and design talents, the teenagers also are required to raise funds. Once Upon a Room accepts donations at its website, where there also are links to contribute specific items through online “wish lists” at Amazon or Target.
Jenny Hull and Dancsecs have visions of expanding the program, they said, perhaps by enacting a “Room in a Box” program. They want to package all the necessary items to decorate a room for shipping to young patients anywhere in the United States.
“Just a simple act of kindness goes so far,” Hull said. “It’s such a simple thing that has such a great, instant effect. Really, we just want [patients] to know that we’re proud of them. And at the end of the day, it’s not about us; we want the hospital to get more of the credit, so we’re always saying, ‘These people are so proud of you that they called and asked us to do this. So keep working hard, keep going!’”