Michigan nonprofit transforms bedrooms into healing spaces for young cancer patients

Rachel Greco
Lansing State Journal

Ovid – Six-year-old Mary Jane Seelhoff’s bedroom walls were slate gray with mountain scenery.

Mary Jane, who loves unicorns, mermaids, and all things magical, never spent much time in her room, often sleeping in her grandmother’s room at night instead. Her family moved to their house in Ovid a year ago, more than two years into her battle with leukemia.

But today, Mary Jane’s bedroom fits her vibrant imagination perfectly. The walls have been repainted a light, sea green. A sheer canopy envelops her bed, which is covered with a bright bedspread and pillows.

“My favorite thing is the mermaid picture on the wall because it’s a mermaid and I love it,” Mary Jane told the Lansing State Journal. “It’s shiny and bright.”

Mary Jane Seelhoff, 6, shows one of her favorite new pillows that was part of her bedroom makeover, Thursday, March 11, 2021, at her home in Ovid, Michigan.

Children with cancer often miss out on school and spending time with their friends, said Cindy Meteyer, a nurse practitioner at Sparrow Hospital who works on its pediatric oncology unit.

“They do end up spending a lot more time at home than the average person so having a comfortable healing space is essential,” she said.

Suite Dreams Project, a Rochester-based nonprofit, has given two young Sparrow cancer patients bedroom makeovers aimed at making sure they have that healing space.

Mary Jane was one of them.

Connecting with Suite Dreams

Mary Jane was 2 when she was diagnosed with cancer just after Christmas in 2017. Her battle hasn’t been easy.

During her cancer treatment, she spent holidays and birthdays at Sparrow Hospital, and she needed to have her blood drawn more than once a week for more than two years. Mary Jane never got used to it.

“It was very traumatic for her and it still is,” said Linda Soliz, 65, her grandmother and guardian.

Meteyer interacts with an average of 20 young cancer patients and their families every year at Sparrow.

Managing treatment can be taxing for families, she said, and the hospital staff tries to help whenever they can.

“Some of these families, it’s just layering upon layering of stressors,” Meteyer said.

She was simply trying to secure a bed for the family of a patient when she first reached out to Suite Dreams Project over a year ago.

“Hey, I know you are an organization that helps with bedroom stuff so I’m hoping you can help me figure out where I can get a cheap bed,” she told them.

“They suggested they take on the whole bedroom,” Meteyer said.

Mary Jane is the second Sparrow patient to receive a bedroom makeover from the nonprofit so far.

The organization typically spends anywhere between $5,000 and $6,000 on each room design, said Sheri Daugherty, director of development for Suite Dreams.

“The focus is on making over bedrooms of chronically ill children who spend a lot of time in their rooms,” she said. “Our whole goal in this is to give them something that will give back day after day after day,” she said.

Suite Dreams redesigns 12 to 20 bedrooms a year, Daugherty said, working with hospitals all over the state to connect with families and children.

In the last year and a half, the group has also done three complete home makeovers, she said.

Meteyer said Sparrow hopes to continue connecting families with them.

“Suite Dreams is the kind of organization where you ask them for an inch and they will give you a mile,” she said. “They’ve just been incredible to work with in both these cases.”

Mary Jane Seelhoff, 6, poses with her grandmother Linda Soliz, Thursday, March 11, 2021, at her home in Ovid, Michigan.

A room reimagined

Suite Dreams works with local designers after its staff and volunteers talk with the recipients about what they want most out of a new bedroom.

“Most of the kids want something fresh and new,” Daugherty said.

Others, like Mary Jane, ask for something specific.

The energetic girl wanted a room as big as her imagination – one that was bright and magical.

“I talked to them about what I liked,” Mary Jane said.

Last month, the nonprofit spent five days at Soliz’s home in Ovid making over Mary Jane’s bedroom. The walls were repainted, then lighting and furniture were added.

The reveal was emotional for both Mary Jane and Soliz.

The wall next to her bed displayed a mural depicting a mermaid looking out over an ocean from atop a rock, her dark hair caught up in the wind.

“It’s just beautiful,” Soliz said. “She almost cried when she saw it and she couldn’t stop looking at it.”

Mary Jane loves her bedroom now. It’s where she listens to music, sings, dances, watches TV and sleeps through the night in her own bed, Soliz said.

“When I go in there I feel the same way that she does,” she said. “It’s cozy and warm. She’s at peace in that room She can sleep there. It’s relaxing to her and she really enjoys it.”

“I think it’s amazing,” Mary Jane said.