Family of ailing Oakland man marvels at makeover
by East Bay nonprofit
By Lou Fancher for Oakland Tribune
Kicked out of his family's three-bedroom apartment while a team of a six volunteers transformed two bedrooms into dreams, Jonathan Pratt was taken aback by what he saw when he returned home 12 hours later.
After spending a night in a nearby hotel and a day traveling by limousine to Pier 39 and other San Francisco sites, walking into his bedroom was like entering utopia.
"It's wonderful; it's beautiful," he marveled, as he fingered the new electronic keyboard, iPad Air, freshly framed graduation photos and his favorite running shoes. He flopped with childlike abandon onto his new bed.
The big reveal came Saturday courtesy of the Bay Area chapter of Special Spaces, a national nonprofit that provides dream makeovers for young people with life-threatening medical illnesses. Special Spaces, headquartered in Knoxville, Tenn., was founded in 2004 by Executive Director Jennifer Swain. The San Ramon-based Special Spaces San Francisco, directed by Shelley Ham, did the makeover for the 21-year-old.
Pratt, referred to Special Spaces by Children's Hospital Oakland, was diagnosed with a peripheral sheath tumor and spinal cancer two years ago.
"When we first started the chapter two years ago, we put seasoned designers with student designers to make it happen," Ham said, while a small cadre of volunteers swept by with bedding and bags. "We've done 24 makeovers in two years; average for a chapter is about four per year."
Pratt couldn't believe his eyes, and neither could his younger brother, 11-year-old Leonard Smith, pointing at a grinning, life-size decal mounted near his bed. "Look at my (LeBron) James," Leonard said. A row of basketballs stored under his bed brought a smile.
Special Spaces extended the makeover to the bedroom of Pratt's sisters, Denise, 17, and Christina, 14. "We're never coming out of our room now," Christina said.
Their mother, Annette Luster, was speechless; tear-filled eyes and hands covering the drop of her jaw expressed volumes of appreciation.
"This is a spectacular child," Ham said, referring to Pratt. "The one thing that's always true is that the family is appreciative. The love they feel, from strangers -- it's amazing to them. The parents -- they don't have the time to do this themselves: they're so busy helping their child get treatments."
Ham -- and many of the volunteers who roll up their sleeves or open their wallets to support the organization -- know from personal experience the stress of having an ill child. Two of her daughters experienced life-threatening diseases. Bringing hope and joy to families in need is "simply all we do," she said. Despite her chapter's considerable track record, she still finds the "outrageous generosity" of people and corporate donors "unbelievable."
Designer Kim Carolo selected the slate-gray/black/red color palette for the two brothers' room -- and the furry white rugs and bold purple bed throws for the girls' bedroom -- after meeting with Pratt.
"Music was top of the list, and he had a gentle energy," she said. "His brother mentioned sports, and (Pratt) talked about their interests intertwining. I focused on what they had in common."
Before the "reveal," Pratt said his bedroom was "a comfort zone," a place to get away but never from his brother. "He's always with me. I'd never shut him out," he said.
But he does shut out "all I have to go through" and finds solace in music. "My biggest passion was track, but when I got sick, I fell back on my music," he said. Tupac Shakur's "Dear Mama¿" and Biggie Smalls' music and life story offer essential escape. Years of training as a track athlete helped him to focus, block out, and just roll with the ever-changing nature of his illness.
"I just have to push. It's like me winning a race," he said.
His mother finds strength in God and talking to her sisters. Taught by her mother to revere the family home as a place of peace, even "a palace," Luster said her son's diagnosis "barged in out of the blue." Family closeness, she said, even though they argue, means they're "united as one."
Pratt said they stick together, no matter what. "I try to stay strong," he said. "I don't show my pain. My mom knows; I don't have to show it to her."
Anticipating his new digs, he said the makeover is "crazy but wonderful at the same time." Leonard nodded in agreement.
But there was no mistaking the expression on the faces of four young people and their mother after the reveal.
"A makeover is a forward-looking thing that helps the family heal over time," volunteer Luci Gallagher said. The Special Spaces makeover was not just a moment, it was a forever dream, right here on Earth.