“Isn’t this odd?” she asked. “Here we are asking you what your dream is and you’re probably thinking, ‘I just want to get through this chemo and have a normal life again.’”
San Clemente local Paula Oblen recounts a moment between herself and the newest recipient of a Special Spaces Orange County bedroom remodel.
Special Spaces is a national nonprofit corporation dedicated to changing children’s lives one bedroom at a time. There are teams around the country working tirelessly to create dream bedrooms for children facing life-threatening illnesses. Oblen recently became director of the Orange County chapter and is thrilled to utilize her gifts and passions for such a worthy cause.
Longtime entrepreneur and CEO of her company, Hotelements, and a member of the San Clemente Junior Women’s Club, she wanted to join forces with an effort that would match her passion for children and design. During an event with the SC Junior Women’s Club, she found it serendipitous when she met the former director of Special Spaces Orange County and was invited to become their designer. Since then, she has helped design three bedrooms and taken on the role of director.
“I remember my first bedroom,” she says.
It was for a 5-year-old girl facing leukemia. The child was diagnosed at 2 years old. Oblen described the girl as bright and simultaneously wondered at her ability to comprehend what she was going through at such a young age. When she talked with the child about her dreams, she realized that just like the girl, the room would be “A Modern Princess.” She wanted pink, so the princess received her pink, princess bedroom.
Another remodel was for a 16-year-old girl named Abigail, or Abi as she’s called. Abi was diagnosed with an uncommon disease called Wegener’s Granulomatosis, which causes inflammation in the blood vessels and can lead to complications in the kidneys, lungs and upper respiratory tract.
“Despite her adversity, she lit up the room with her smile and independent spirit,” Oblen says.
She was excited for the remodel and even created her own “inspiration board” with ideas for her new room. In May 2015, the team created a “Modern Boutique Beach Bungalow” for Abi, which reflected her personality perfectly.
In June 2016, a remodel was done for a close family friend of Oblen’s. Jack Szabo was diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma on his 18th birthday. He was immediately put on chemo and later had to undergo a bone marrow transplant. Oblen is in awe of Jack.
“He has fought with courage and taught everyone along the way that you can push through anything with the right attitude,” she says.
His room includes an entire wall of chalk canvas where friends and family can leave messages of love and inspiration.
Oblen says remodeling the bedrooms is not just about decorating—it’s about giving each child an experience. Her hope is that when the child walks into their bedroom, all of their worries will disappear. She wants it to be a space that gives them hope and inspiration. The bedroom is so important because when the children get home from the hospital, their bedroom is like a safe haven. It’s a place for them to heal and recover, and since they will likely spend a lot of time in their bedroom, it should be a place where they can find some peace and comfort in the midst of their suffering.
Once a recipient has been identified and meets the necessary criteria, Oblen and her team set up a meeting with the child’s family and then interview the child. By meeting and talking with the children, Oblen and the Special Spaces Orange County team gain valuable insights into each child’s wildest dreams by tapping into everything imaginable. By asking questions about favorite music and dream vacation destinations, for example, they learn what the children are thinking, what they want and what they wish for.
Even when a child is initially shy to share, Oblen says they always think of something they want. With the newest recipient, for example, it took a while before he would share something he wished for. During the interview, he eventually started to open up and share, and as she was getting ready to leave his home, he called out from his bedroom with something else he had thought of for his room.
As a 15-year-old, it makes sense that being diagnosed with leukemia would leave him shy to speak. It also makes sense, as Oblen suggested, that his number one wish would be to get well and get back to his normal life again. Because he opened up to the team about his dreams and wishes, his bedroom remodel is scheduled to take place in mid-March.
Since he is a freshman at San Clemente High School, Oblen thought it would be special to invite his classmates to help out. For her, it’s important to involve the community in these efforts. She met with the student body president and discussed the possibility of starting a Special Spaces club at the school. She then gave a presentation at the high school and found a girl to be president of the club. San Clemente High School now has a Special Spaces Club with 200 members.
They are currently planning and preparing for the dream bedroom remodel. All of the kids will have a role, whether it be construction, making cards, taking care of food, painting or any of the various other pieces needed to complete the project. All of the pieces are important. It’s a team effort, and everyone needs to roll up their respective sleeves so that the remodel will be a success.
“I believe the kids in the new club are about to experience something they never have before,” Oblen says. “And I can’t wait for our big reveal!”
Not only are the kids transforming a room, but their lives will undergo transformation in the process as well. Even if they cannot fully anticipate what’s ahead, they are all excited to help out.
Oblen is also excited about helping. She’s grateful she gets to express her creativity in this way. As she reflects on her work as director of Special Spaces Orange County, she acknowledges her journey here.
As an entrepreneur, when she was trying to grow her business, she says she always used to be thinking of herself.
“Your work life and personal life can be overwhelming,” she says. “And it’s easy to get wrapped up in yourself and your business.”
After a time of reflection, she realized something was missing. She had a strong desire to take all of her passion and experience and combine that with her love for kids. It’s not just about her anymore. It’s about the people around her. It’s about community.
It’s about seeing a child’s face open up with joy and delight as they see their dream come true. It’s about giving each child, as Gertrude Stein would say, the “place of places.” Or better yet, it’s about giving each child the special space of spaces.