Today, we’re sharing the story of an inspiring mother-daughter duo who set out with simple intentions: to brighten the lives of hospitalized children. Learn how their efforts to turn sterile hospital rooms into kinder, happier places sparked a movement, resulting in a nonprofit organization with over 33 chapters nationwide, including 11 right here in the South!
Hospital stays were a fact of life for Jenny Hull’s daughter Josie when she was a child. Born a conjoined twin, Josie was in and out of sterile hospital rooms, and the monotony took its toll on her spirit — but Jenny knew what to do.
She had seen this scenario before with a close friend who was hospitalized. One look at that hospital room, and Jenny knew it needed better energy. She ran out to a local boutique, picked up a handful of decor items, and gave the room a quick makeover and an infusion of joy. She knew this same “brightening up” could help her daughter.
Jenny brought in Josie’s favorite colors and characters, creating a space that felt happier and made her feel like her room reflected her as a person, not just a patient. The decor became one of the guiding lights throughout Josie’s stay, and it led to a lightbulb moment for Josie, who suggested that if the personalized design made her so happy, perhaps they should do it for others, too.
Inspired by Josie’s heart for giving back, Jenny was immediately on board. Josie didn’t waste any time getting to work, and her best friend Sienna also jumped into the action, securing a grant from Disney. They named their fledgling organization Once Upon a Room, a nod to the magic of these transformations. They created a 501(c)(3) and were off to the races.
They started at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, bringing in comforters, throw blankets, a personalized pillow and sign, bunting, a RoomMates name decal, and several toys and activities geared toward the child’s interests. From the beginning, they knew personalization was the key to making these children feel seen — an opportunity to look past a child’s condition and focus on their personality. Jenny explains, “You can’t help but walk in and say, ‘Oh my gosh, you like rainbows!’ It helps the staff remember this is a human, not just a medical diagnosis.”
Jenny and Josie also personalize a canvas for each child. Recounting a particularly moving story, Jenny explains why that personal touch matters. “For one 16-year-old boy, we knew he liked red, silver, and baseball,” she says. “This was an over-the-top design throughout the room. But, of everything in the room, it was [seeing] his name that really struck a chord.”
All of that personalization is keeping Jenny and her team busy. In the first year, they set a goal of 50 rooms at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
They did 110.
With that momentum behind them, word spread quickly, and Jenny began to receive calls from across the country. Since then, chapters of Once Upon a Room have sprung up in 33 hospitals nationwide, and the number is growing every year. They now have 11 chapters in cities throughout the South: Atlanta, Lexington, Shreveport, Raleigh, New Orleans, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston, Jacksonville, Gainesville, and Miami. Jennifer Doller, who started Once Upon a Room in Atlanta, says, “The South has such a rich tradition of philanthropy and giving back, so it’s not surprising that nearly one-third of our chapters have launched in southern cities.”
While someday they’d love to give every child the magic of Once Upon a Room, Jenny and Josie have a system for deciding which children will benefit most at that moment. “We work with child life specialists, who care for the mental and social well-being of the child and family,” says Jenny. “These specialists help us choose the children who will get a new room, and they also give us insight into what that room should look like.” On install day, they find a reason to pull the child away from the room, if possible, and the makeover greets them when they return.
Jennifer Doller found that the experience impacted her more than she imagined. While getting her chapter of the organization off the ground, she received news of a breast cancer diagnosis. Rather than giving up on her efforts, she used the project as an opportunity to maintain a positive outlook and help others with similar life-altering diagnoses.
“We just all need to feel good and do good again,” she says. “It’s been therapeutic for a lot of people, including myself. We’ve all been ready to be able to give again and have these moments with others.”
And the positive impact of Once Upon a Room continues to spread. High schoolers are given an opportunity to volunteer through the Junior Room Crew, which started as a way to get Josie and Sienna involved. Now, they have hundreds of teen volunteers at various hospitals, and Jenny has seen them grow through the volunteer work. Jenny explains, “The Junior Room Crew has morphed into a leadership program where they learn about fundraising and planning fundraising events. It’s great seeing these teens get behind raising awareness, raising money, and getting behind a cause.”
Of course, all of this comes with tremendous effort and at a considerable cost. They’re thankful for all those who help spread the word. Jenny says, “We love welcoming corporations in for a day of giving and team building, and we need big donors and little donors! A $10 donation can give us a remote control car! Every bit counts. We’re just so grateful for everyone who helps us and puts their hearts and souls into fulfilling our mission,” says Jenny.
You can learn more and donate at onceuponaroom.org.
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