By Judy O’Gorman Alvarez
Group Offers Hope and a Room Redo
Five-year-old Tyler Blewitt and his family were greeted by friends, well-wishers and dignitaries, as they moved back to their Union Beach home last month. The family had fled after Super Storm Sandy roared through their house in late October.
Although Tyler’s dad and older siblings worked hard to get their house fit to live in again, the family was overwhelmed and grateful to find a crisp, new, warmly decorated living room, with handsome furniture and a brightly organized play area complete with toys and books to cheer a 5-year-old boy.
“The room looks like it belongs in a magazine,” said Kathryn Rodgers, Tyler’s mom.
Thanks to some big-hearted and creative volunteers from Room in Our Hearts, a nonprofit organization that creatively and sustainably redesigns a room in the home of people affected by disaster, Tyler and his family had a brand new living room.
Each room redesigned by Room in Our Hearts includes furniture, artwork, home décor and other artifacts from recycled or refashioned items. Volunteer decorators, artists and craftspeople create a space – mixing the old with the new – to bring warmth, comfort and a sense of normalcy to a family who has experienced loss and disruption in their lives.
Tyler, a pre-kindergartner, was born prematurely with supraventrical tachycardia (SVT), a heart condition that causes the heart to beat abnormally fast. Despite a tough start in life, he has been living without medication for the last few years. When Super Storm Sandy hit Union Beach, the youngster had just celebrated his birthday. The family was forced to evacuate, leaving everything – including Tyler’s birthday presents. When the storm surged through their house, it destroyed the contents of the family’s first floor.
The stress pushed Tyler into an SVT episode a few days later and he was rushed to the emergency room. Afterward, he wound up in Saint Peter’s University Hospital’s CHOP – Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia – pediatric cardiology unit.
Since then, the family has focused on getting Tyler well – he is doing better now on medication – and cleaning out and repairing their home. Tyler’s dad has spent almost every day since the storm repairing the home in preparation for the family’s return.
That meant the family was a perfect candidate for a Room in Our Hearts renovation.
A graphic artist by trade, Katharine Koehler has always had a “passion for junk.” Her Middletown house and those of friends’ are filled with furniture, knickknacks and assorted items that she has rescued and refurbished.
She admits that one of her favorite lines is: “Why are you getting rid of that?”
Koehler wanted to turn this obscure talent into a way to help people who may not have the extra money to decorate their homes.
“Then Sandy came along and I knew this is where I can help. This is what I feel passionate about,” she said.
Koehler recruited friends with decorating, artistic and even garage-sale shopping skills, and started a blog and the arduous paperwork to set up a nonprofit. She then began collecting furniture, odds and ends and called for donations.
Although not specifically intended to be a Sandy-relief organization, with 85 percent of Union Beach affected by the storm, Koehler said it made sense to start there. She created Room in Our Hearts to help people in crisis. “This is where our focus is right now.”
With a motto: “I can fix that,” Koehler and her volunteers have turned discarded items into treasured pieces.
Along with the revamped items, Room in Our Hearts has received generous donations of new items from individuals, corporate sponsors and local businesses. Value City Furniture in Middletown has donated floor models and slightly dinged furniture, and Middletown’s Carpet Value Outlet provided free carpeting for each family’s newly decorated room.
“I love to be creative but, it’s good to mix the new with the old,” said Koehler, who stressed the importance of recycling and reusing items and not adding to landfills.
When Kathryn Rodgers agreed to be the first recipient of a Room in Our Hearts room redo, she didn’t know what to expect.
“Katharine (Koehler) came to my house and we were under construction,” Rodgers said. “We were sitting on buckets while we were spackling. I couldn’t even fathom what could be done with that room.”
But the result, she said, was remarkable. Theresa Carbone, the room’s project manager, Koehler and the volunteers created a beautiful space.
“Their vision came from a construction site,” Rodgers said. “And now the room is absolutely gorgeous … And they are an amazing group of people.”
The family could not move back home until the kitchen and bathroom were functioning and Room in Our Hearts finished the living room at the same time. So after five months, Tyler and family moved back home the day of the “big reveal.”
From the terra-cotta bench and the play area designed for Tyler to the simple white coat rack that greets visitors in the entryway, Rodgers said she’s thrilled.
“I love it all,” she said. “There’s lots of organization and storage and complementary colors.”
There’s still so much to do, inside and outside the home, but the family is reinvigorated by the new living room.
“To have at least one finished room gives us this boost,” said Rodgers. “We can push forward to finish our home.”
For information or to donate furniture and décor items, visit http://roominourhearts.org/.