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Extreme makeover, church edition, aids sick children

Iyana Major, 10, and her mother, Kiatonyia, get their first look at their newly renovated bedroom at the Ronald McDonald House in Little Rock, Ark.
A UMNS photo courtesy of Henderson United Methodist Church.

By Heather Hahn*
Nov. 23, 2009 | LITTLE ROCK (UMNS)

Reality TV could not have done it better.

Over 10 days this fall, members of Henderson United Methodist Church completely remodeled the apartment for long-term cancer patients at the Ronald McDonald House near Arkansas Children’s Hospital.

They replaced the floors, widened the kitchen, repainted walls, installed new countertops and set up new furniture — all with the hope of creating a more inviting “home away from home” for critically ill children and their families.

Church member Nancy Cassat, who spearheaded the project, dubbed the effort “Extreme Mac-Over.” And just like the team on ABC’s hit “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” the church volunteers not only revitalized a place but revived the spirits of those who stay there.

Ten-year-old Iyana Major, a cancer patient, could see the difference the first night she dropped by to see the progress on the renovation of the rooms where she and her mother had been staying for the past five months.

“Her eyes got as big as quarters,” Cassat said. “We were in roughest of roughest stages. But she said, ‘This looks like a home and not a Ronald McDonald House.’ And that made it all worthwhile.”

To love and serve

Iyana had come to Little Rock with her mother from their home in Magnolia, in southern Arkansas, to receive treatment for neuroblastoma, cancer of the nerve tissues. While volunteers renovated the apartment, the Majors stayed in another room in the Ronald McDonald House. But Iyana was eager to help the volunteers. She got especially excited when Cassat welcomed her to join in the painting.

The Rev. Kevin Lyon (center) leads a blessing of the renovated apartment.
A UMNS photo by Heather Hahn.

“It was the first time I ever did that,” she said proudly. “I had fun, and I did good.”

The idea for the ‘Mac-Over’ came about when Cassat, the congregation’s missions chair, was looking for a service project that would involve her entire church, which has a weekly attendance of about 250.

Another church member suggested she check out the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkansas, which provides respite for the families of hospitalized children in 25 dormitory style rooms as well as the apartment for those in long-term care. Last year, the Arkansas house served 965 families.

The charity’s staff told Cassat that all its rooms could use some refurbishing. But what really excited Cassat was the chance to upgrade the somewhat sterile-looking apartment.

“The moment I heard about it, my mind went ‘Oh yeah, that’s it,’” she said. “I love doing stuff like this. I always tease my husband when we see those shows on TV where they redo a home. I tell him, ‘I could do that.’”

A place of tranquility

Cassat also had a personal reason for wanting to help families caring for a sick child. She lost a son when he was 16. He went to sleep one night, she said, and did not wake up the next morning. He died when a blood clot burst in his brain.

“When I knew it involved children, I knew I had to be involved,” she said. “The trials and tribulations of a parent losing a child or potentially losing a child tugs at my heart.”

Over the next four months, Cassat committed herself to working 20 or 30 hours a week on top of her full-time job as a dental hygienist to line up corporate sponsors to provide furniture, paint and other accessories for the renovation project.

In addition, the church sold yellow T-shirts bearing the Ronald McDonald House logo to raise money for the project.

Volunteers strove to create a more inviting “home away from home” for critically ill children and their families.
A UMNS photo by Heather Hahn.

Altogether, the church raised about $10,000 for the remodeling project. About 20 companies donated or discounted their services for the project. Home Depot provided a $2,000 grant, and Kohl’s contributed $1,000 toward the effort.

Just about everyone in the congregation was involved in some way with the project, either in buying the fundraiser T-shirts or working on the apartment.

Jim Berman, a retiree, was there early each morning during the 10-day makeover and handled most of the painting.

Like Cassat and other volunteers, he was charmed by Iyana’s enthusiasm with a paintbrush.

“When the little girl found out she could help paint this stuff,” he said, “she just lit up.”

Hope, strength, faith

The result of the church’s efforts was the dedication on Sept. 27 of a cozy apartment that might warm the heart of Ty Pennington, the host of ABC’s “Extreme Makeover.”

The words “Hope,” “Love,” “Strength” and “Faith” that adorn one wall are what people first see when they enter the apartment.

The living room is now decorated in warm crimsons and golds. A new flat-screen TV is perched on a table to the side.

The kitchen now has space for a table and chairs. New countertops glisten. Small accessories like fall wreaths enliven walls throughout the apartment. Photos of dogs line the walls of the new chocolate-brown and sky-blue bedroom.

“I wanted to do something very homey and very calming,” Cassat said, “so when they come home from hospital they have a place to get some peace and relief from stress.”

The Rev. Kevin Lyon, senior pastor of Henderson United Methodist, said the project got people throughout the church excited.

“[On the Sunday of the dedication] we had a lot of folks in our congregation, just speckled throughout, wearing the yellow T-shirts,” he said. “That showed the importance of the project to the entire church.”

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Thanking God

Dozens of Henderson members and friends turned out for the consecration.

After “oohing” and “ahhing” at the new decor, they bowed their heads in prayer for the families undergoing trying conditions who would make the place a temporary home.

“Gracious God,” Lyon said. “I pray for families who over the next years come through these doors, that they might find healing for their spirits, that there would be laughter here and, Lord, love shared through these rooms.”

The Majors are delighted just to get the chance to settle into their new digs. The two weren’t able to attend the church’s consecration of the apartment because they were in Philadelphia, where Iyana was receiving additional treatments.

Back in Little Rock, Kiatonyia Major, Iyana’s mother, said her first response upon seeing the completed apartment was, “It is cool!”

Her daughter was particularly delighted by the redesigned bedroom.

She said: “It’s home sweet home.”

*Hahn is editor of the Arkansas United Methodist.

News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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Henderson United Methodist Church

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