Let the Sun Shine In

By Lise Funderburg

O At Home
Winter 2005

A bland, windowless office becomes a friendly paradise for kids coping with illness. Elaine Griffin makes miracles while Lise Funderburg looks on.

The best description of this Good Works Makeover challenge—turning a boxy, characterless office into a kid-friendly activity room—resides in the recipient organization’s motto. “Bringing Sunshine to a Cloudy Day” is the tagline of Project Sunshine, a volunteer-driven program that provides support to children with medical issues ranging from broken legs to terminal illness.

Project Sunshine’s new mid-£own Manhattan office was clouded with competing demands: It had to house both the small staff that runs the organization and a recreational space for Club Sunshine, a new program for kids with ailing family members. Club Sunshine will be a place for those kids to simply have fun—whether in arts-and-crafts projects, goofing around, or curling up with a book.

One of Project Sunshine’s staff social workers, Jessica Geller, came up with the idea for the program. Several years ago, when her uncle was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, she saw that her two cousins, then 11 and 16, needed support, but so did the people they normally would have turned to. Everybody was stretched thin.

“Family illness brings up so many emotions for kids,” Geller explains. First, there’s the guilt. “Children, especially young ones, blame themselves and have a hard time understanding this has nothing to do with them,” she says. Routine vanishes, and kids may not know who’s picking them up from school or where they’ll be sleeping on any given night. Children may respond with anger, denial (especially if a parent’s condition is terminal), and acting out as a way to make the outside world match their internal chaos.

Chaos wasn’t what Good Works goddess Elaine Griffin saw when she toured the site; cavelike would more aptly describe the windowless, rectangular space. The designer’s first step was to have O at Home’s construction partner, Lowe’s, grab four more feet of room length by moving a divider wall between the activity area and the staff’s space. At the opposite end of the room, Lowe’s created a small alcove by demolishing a storage closet. These modifications gave Elaine just about 12 feet by 24 feet to work with, and the plan she came up with was to divide the space into discrete activity zones, each one more engaging and interactive than the next.

“This is all about the F-word,” Elaine said, mid-renovation. “Fun.”

She enlisted decorative painters Glenn and Austin Palmer-Smith to make the divider wall into a visual welcome, since it’s directly in the sight line of the entryway. The father-and-son team scouted New York’s Central Park for their Friendship Tree mural, which has space for every child who visits to put his or her name on a paper leaf and tape it to the tree. At the mural’s base, a pile of colorful and fruit-shaped beanbag chairs encourage flopping and nestling.

A sectional sofa from Ikea and an Elaine-designed color-block mural transform the former closet into an intimate hangout nook. Masking off and painting the blocks demanded such meticulous attention, Elaine says, “It almost drove the painting team crazy.” The resulting checkerboard uses zany colors such as Purple Flurp and Rip Curl Red, and it not only disguises wall defects but also offers a view that combats the absence of windows.

The 27-year-old founder of Project Sunshine, corporate accounting executive Joseph Weilgus, broke into a broad smile when he first saw the completed makeover. “How could you not?” he asked. “I expected a cool, amazing room. I didn’t expect it to be so inspiring.” Weilgus knows from inspiring. What started as periodic visits to hospitals during his college days—the children of some family friends were ill—expanded as he started wearing clown gear to entertain children he didn’t know. Weilgus enlisted the help of friends when he saw that a kid who’d had chemo all day and was going to be up all night might like company, another kid might want to be read to, while another might need help with schoolwork. He wanted to help them all.

“It’s ironic,” Weilgus says, “but this work makes you happy. Yes, we visit pediatric wards where kids are suffering. Sometimes we cry with them, but we’re always there holding their hands.” College campuses and corporations across the country have started Project Sunshine chapters, and individual kids run book drives and bring in their families to put together journal-making kits for hospitalized children. “We help kids who are sick and whose parents are sick, but almost as important is getting people to volunteer, because that’s what we’re put on this earth for.”

Apparently, Elaine was put on this earth to translate human relationships and emotions into three dimensions and a unified color palette. The Club Sunshine headquarters she’s concocted overflows with “F” possibilities. In fact, she herself can’t quite settle on which aspect of this project most completely delights her: It could be the four tickets to a Yankees baseball game, donated by shortstop Derek Jeter’s Turn 2 Foundation (turn2foundation.org), for a to-be-determined child; it could be the “fish family,” four squishable and cheery felt pillows that swim along the sectional couch; or it could be watching the first group of kids enter the completed room, particularly the boy who crosses the threshold, immediately throws himself onto a beanbag chair, kicks his feet up in the air, and dissolves into giggles. ” Mission accomplished,” Elaine declares, eyeing the giggler.