Make-A-Wish Foundation lures Trading Spaces
June 25, 2003 5:00 p.m.
BENT CREEK - When the dream waiters came to take Lexi Saunooke's order, she fooled them.
The longtime patient at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, who lives with her family in Bent Creek, didn't ask for the wish du jour.
She didn't want to go to Disney World, a top request for children with life-threatening illnesses who look to the Make-A-Wish Foundation to fulfill dreams.
Lexi, who has fought a rare cancer of the pharynx, wanted something different.
She gave it serious thought. The 13-year-old blond-haired cheerleader at Enka Middle School wondered if she should go to Hawaii. Or maybe she could contact the Pet Psychic on Animal Planet and find means of chatting with her array of animals, including cats, dogs and a rabbit.
She nixed that idea and considered swimming with the dolphins in Key West.
Or visiting the San Francisco zoo and helping with the baby animals.
Finally, she came up with something so original, the Make- A-Wish people were astounded.
Lexi wanted a new bedroom and asked if talented funnyman and decorator Frank Bielec from The Learning Channel's "Trading Spaces" could fly in and do the honors.
Her purplish bedroom had gotten on her last nerve. The homemade bed was falling apart, the mattress springs were busting coils. Handles were falling off the dresser, the floor was dirty and the dcor more than dated.
Linda Lamp, regional director of Make-A-Wish of Central and Western North Carolina, jumped into action. It took months to line everything up. One day out of the blue, it was looking good. Frank would be able to pull this off. Then a week later, things looked bad; his schedule was booked.
Throughout the wait, Lexi was patient, envisioning her purple room transformed into a maroon and golden palace - a showplace.
The sudden illness
Lexi Saunooke had always been a happy-go-lucky child, filled with energy and a love for animals. In summer 2001, her glands swelled, and she had trouble opening her mouth. Her mother, Amy, took the girl to the doctor, who diagnosed strep throat. When that didn't go away, she saw an ear, nose and throat specialist who discovered a tumor the size of a lima bean. A biopsy of the tissue revealed nasopharyngeal cancer, which is extremely rare in children.
"About one in a million," Lexi said, smiling. The day her mother learned of the results, doctors immediately ordered the child into Mission St. Joseph's hospital. Amy drove to Enka Middle and pulled her daughter from a social studies class.
"One day you're fine," Amy said, "and within a couple of days you have all these things poking out of you."
Amy quit her job and spent six months with her only child at St. Jude hospital in Memphis. She is now cancer-free. They made the most of the radiation and chemotherapy by taking trips - plenty to Graceland - between hospital visits.
"It was tacky," Lexi said of Elvis' homeplace. She should know about tacky vs. classy. She did, after all, summon Frank Bielec from "Trading Spaces" to redo her bedroom.
"I had decided to get my room redone because my furniture had seen a rough life," Lexi said.
And out of the blue, after all the back-and-forth between "his people" and "Make-A-Wish" people, the deal went through. The family got a call one night, and Frank drove up in a black limo to their Bent Creek doorstep at 9 a.m. the next day.
"When I saw him I started jumping up and down," Lexi said. "I almost screamed. We measured the room and thought about it. I wanted autumn colors, mostly gold and maroon."
The group ate breakfast at Lexi's, provided by Make-A- Wish, and then all piled in the limo and headed to Bed Bath & Beyond for a major spending spree.
"I had told him I wanted to get rid of everything and have some space for when my friends came over," she said.
A room fit for a queen
In the stores, Frank was a whirlwind. He'd toss pillows into the seven carts they had going like a mini-train. Within an hour, each buggy was filled with special delights, including bedding, lamps and hundreds of dollars worth of beaded and braided pillows.
"He was so excited," Amy said of Frank. On the show, those who trade rooms have a $1,000 budget. But during this trip, Frank was virtually free to spend all he wanted.
After the first store, they hit Lowe's and picked out paint, rugs, furniture and more lamps and light fixtures.
They were a demolition shopping derby and gave little to no thought to price. That's because of the generosity of the fifth-graders at Asheville Catholic School who raised all the money for Lexi's dream, some $5,000.
And even though Frank was by Lexi's side in every store, it was the teenager's good taste that pulled the look together.
"He's real funny and nice," Lexi said. "He would always ask my opinion."
"Her room went from a little girl's lavender room with stuffed animals, to a room fit for a princess," Amy said. "It is really an extraordinary transformation.
"This wish was a labor of love," she said. "So many people came together to make it possible." Even a volunteer from Lowe's who jumped in on the action, using her time off to help paint and decorate.
When the work was done, Lexi's room looked similar to what she envisions of the suites at a five-star hotel.
"We call it the Taj," Amy said of her daughter's small but beautiful space. "It doesn't quite fit with the rest of the house."
Lexi talks about the features, telling guests, "You have to feel the sheets."
"Ohhhhh, it's comfortable," she said. She chose a daybed with a trundle and decked it in maroon and gold, velvet and other rich tapestries. She even wrapped leftover velvet ties around her candles and bulletin board.
"Now that I have this royalty to sleep on," she said, "I feel like a queen."