Designing rooms for children with special needs

February 22, 2012

It was just over three years ago when interior designer Ginger Rodriguez received the phone call that would change her life.
In December 2008, she and her husband, Miguel, were asked to provide emergency foster care for an infant; 45 minutes later, a little boy in need of shelter and medical attention was brought to their door in Alexandria. They officially adopted Sean last summer.

The experience of raising a child with medical disabilities and developmental delays prompted Rodriguez to add a specialty to her business: creating rooms for children who have special needs.

“There are so many people dealing with this,” she says. “I wanted to come up with a way to help make their lives as easy as possible.”

Rodriguez recalls seeing Sean for the first time.

“He was very tiny,” she says. “He was 11 months old, but he looked like he was 5 or 6 months. His clothes were too big and his shirt was sagging. I saw a scar on his chest.”

Rodriguez would eventually discover that Sean had a congenital heart defect and a disorder that put him at risk of choking while eating. He also had developed chronic lung disease and gastroesophageal reflux disease, and he had language and social delays.

While Rodriguez was monitoring Sean’s health, she was also tending to her husband, their 12-year-old son, their home and her design business. Like other parents she met in doctors’ offices, Rodriguez felt overwhelmed by her new responsibilities.

“While all of this was going on, I started questioning what I was doing,” she says about her design career. “I’m making homes beautiful, and there are people out there struggling. I wanted to help them out.”

Rodriguez realized her design background gave her an advantage: When she needed to adapt her home to accommodate the needs of a child with challenges, it was easy.

“I have the contacts. I can get carpenters and contractors,” she says. “I know where to look for resources.”

Soon she started sharing what she knew with others.

At support group meetings, as parents discussed the different ways they managed their lives, Rodriguez would talk about the changes she made in her home that made life easier. For instance, she removed all the wall-to-wall carpeting around the house and installed hardwood floors so it would be easier to roll Sean’s IV pole.

In his bedroom, she reorganized his closet to keep his medical supplies close by. She found a bedside table with compartments for easy access to his medical equipment and favorite books. She removed the original bedroom door and installed a pocket door to make room for a comfortable, upholstered chair. She lowered the light switches so Sean could reach them, and she installed a control to the stereo system so he could have access to music. She painted the walls light blue and hired a muralist to paint an image above the bed of a little boy flying an airplane and laughing.

“We wanted it happy,” says Rodriguez, “because there are lots of not-so-happy days here.”

Many kids with special needs spend more time in their rooms than other children, so their rooms need to balance out the unpleasantness they face, she says. Her goal for a room is less about decorating and more about diverting a child’s attention from his or her medical issues.

“You want to make it a bedroom,” she says, “not a hospital room.”

One of the parents she helped was Susan Swindell, whom she met through a support group. Soon after, Swindell hired Rodriguez to help her with her 5-year-old son’s room in McLean.

“I always wanted to change Collin’s room, but I didn’t know where to start,” says Swindell. “[Rodriguez] has a son with the same issues, so she knew things that needed to be changed, things I didn’t think about. . . . It’s the last thing on your mind.”

First, Rodriguez removed the carpeting and replaced it with hardwood for the IV pole. Then, she painted the white walls light blue and added white-and-brown accessories. She took down the curtains and hung vinyl blinds to reduce dust. She bought zippered, allergen-impermeable covers for the pillows, mattress and box spring and organized the closet to house medical supplies. And she brought in new nightstands; one with compartments to house medical equipment, the other with a refrigerator to store medicine, water and juice.

The room is not only beautiful now, Swindell says, it’s functional.

“Having it all there, easy to access, makes a big difference,” she says. “Even Collin knows where everything is stored now. It’s made him a little more self-sufficient.

“She really changed our lives.”

Being able to provide help and ease the minds of parents and children who face medical challenges is one of the highlights of Rodriguez’s career.

“When I give them advice, it’s like a weight is being lifted off of their shoulders. . . . It’s very meaningful,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong: I’d still love to go to Miami and do a great condo, but this is different. This hits home.”

As for Sean, he turned 4 in January.

Despite recovering from a second heart surgery in the fall and dealing with medical issues every day, he’s thriving. When he’s feeling well, he runs and tumbles and jumps on the sofa like any other child his age.

“I know he now has a good shot at doing whatever he wants to do,” Rodriguez says. “It feels good to know you can make that kind of a difference.”

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