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Local nonprofit creates special spaces for special kids

Meghan Zadell’s special space.

Meghan Zadell’s special space.

For Meghan Zadell, 14, having a room of her own with a mirror to help her do her makeup and a place for jewelry is no small thing. That’s because Zadell uses a wheelchair, so her “space” needs to be customized.

But, like so many challenges in Zadell’s young life, the challenge of getting her room just right has been overcome, thanks to a group dedicated to providing bedroom makeovers for children with life-altering illnesses. Zadell, a freshman at Francis Howell Central High School, has cerebral palsy.

In May, Special Spaces St. Louis, a small nonprofit launched in 2011 by Todd and Lacy Gambill, took a day to turn Zadell’s bedroom into a dream space. Gone was the big bed with its pink bedspread and two large night stands. In their place were bright blue walls and small shelves, a desk for homework and a makeup stand, and a mirror that opened into a jewelry box.

The small room is now more open to allow easy movement.

“It makes me feel more independent,” Zadell said of her new space.

Zadell’s father, Tom Jennifer, said the room transition is more than cosmetic.

“She had kind of a little girl room beforehand and this was her big girl room,” Jennifer said. “It was getting ready for high school, it came about at the end of eighth grade.”

For Lacy Gambill, the transition for the kids – up to age 18 – that Special Spaces helps also is not just about looks. Gambill, 43, of Troy, Missouri, explained that many of these children spend much of their time in the hospital. “When they come home, it just gives them their own private area that is designed around their lives, so that they have a place to just rest and relax and enjoy. It just gives them sort of an escape from the medical treatments.”

Special Spaces also is an example of how a group of volunteers can get together to form their own nonprofit organization, which can do something that isn’t necessarily huge but is meaningful for the families and children they help.

Founded in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2004, Special Spaces is based on the idea that children battling a life-threatening disease want their own “special space” of hope, inspiration and comfort.

“We always wanted to do more for kids,” Gambill said of her and her husband.

She said she got the idea for Special Spaces when she was watching a television show called “Secret Millionaire” that featured the nonprofit. When her husband came home that evening, she insisted he watch the show without telling him about the organization.

“He said, ‘Oh my goodness, we could do this in St. Louis,’” she said.

That night she emailed the founder, and three weeks later joined the organization during a stopover in Knoxville while headed to Florida for a family vacation at Disney World.

Troy and Lacy Gambill attracted friends and volunteers to their nonprofit. That group eventually grew to about a dozen people, including an interior designer and carpenter. They are all volunteers, so no one is paid, Gambill said. Often, the group is augmented by volunteers, such as the Keller Williams Realty employees who helped with Zadell’s room.

The Gambills began by working with referrals from SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, then through word of mouth. The group has completed 30 room makeovers so far.  They did 13 rooms last year and hope to have 13 completed this year.

Meghan Zadell sees her remodeled room for the first time.

Meghan Zadell sees her remodeled room for the first time.

Gambill said the family and the child are interviewed prior to the room’s makeover and their ideas are incorporated into its design.

“When we go in we don’t keep anything in the room unless the parents request that this particularly piece of furniture or picture needs to stay in the room,” Gambill said.

No two rooms are the same. And once the planning is done, the actual work is usually finished in one day.

When interviewed for her room, Zadell said she loved the beach and blue. But she was surprised at the result.

“I knew they were doing this but I didn’t know what they were doing and how they were doing it,” she said.

She came home from school to find her room had changed.

“I was speechless, my mouth was wide open and I was crying,” she said. “I was so happy and I loved it.”

Special Spaces now has 35 chapters around the country. Local chapters are responsible for their own fundraising, which can include anything from golf tournaments to corporate and business donations. The cost for a room makeover typically is about $2,500 to $3,000.

The 30 rooms completed so far are in an area from Moberly, Missouri, to Edwardsville, Illinois, with many of the rooms done in St. Charles County, along with several in Ballwin in St.  Louis County.

Gambill said the chapter may not get any bigger.

“That’s just because we all work full-time jobs and this is something we do on the side,” she explained.

Gambill is a teacher who is just starting a corporate job with a computer software company. Her husband is a high school teacher. Together, they have five children. So life is busy, but the work is rewarding.

Friendships among volunteers are stronger, Gambill said. They see the hardships and the strengths of families they help and children who don’t complain.

Zadell is one of those children. She said she considers herself lucky. She was on life support as an infant and has had been in and out of hospitals with surgeries.

“But I fought through it,” she said. “You have to keep fighting.”

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