Two families celebrated a special 15-year-old’s unbridled joy last weekend when Natalie Rivera opened her bedroom door to find it totally redecorated.
Splashes of black paint (actually stickers) adorned the walls, reflecting Natalie’s eclectic, yet girlish style, and accents of bright pink, light blue and zebra print – and even skeletons – were used throughout the room.
Members of the Mullen family were heartened because they worked hard raising money, shopping and decorating in order to place an incredulous smile on Natalie’s face.
Natalie’s family was gratified to hear her shriek with delight because they are intimately aware of the teen’s daily physical struggles.
Natalie’s room is the most recent endeavor of Billy’s Gift, a small, nonprofit organization that redecorates the bedrooms of children with life-altering or life-threatening illnesses.
The organization is made up of Belinda and William Mullen, of Lockport, and their children, sons-in-law and grandchildren. The Mullens lost their five-year-old son, Billy, to leukemia in 1985.
Natalie, born with Caudal Regression syndrome, is waiting for her second kidney transplant and undergoes dialysis three times a week. She goes for her three-plus-hour treatments after long days at the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, where she is a sophomore vocal major. Born with one kidney, Natalie missed weeks of school last year when her body rejected the kidney her mother, Ericka Galeano, donated to her in 2007.
The Mullens’ organization gave Natalie a brief respite from her medical struggles last Satturday, when she was treated to a shopping spree, dinner and the bedroom makeover, which included a brand-new bed frame and mattress, repainted dresser, new stools providing needed storage and many new accessories. The makeover even included a desk custom-made by William Mullen to fit over Natalie’s new bed.
“Now I can sit on my bed and reach my homework and not have to go to the dining room table,” said Natalie, who uses a wheelchair. “I’m very, very happy. This was all a surprise and I love it. It’s just awesome.”
Galeano nominated her daughter for the project, but kept it a secret from the teen.
“Natalie has always kept her room very neat, but it’s been tough to keep it all organized with all of the medical stuff she has,” Galeano said, noting that storage room, like shelving, will make it easier to keep the room tidy.
“Natalie didn’t come out of her room at all on Sunday – she even ate her meals in there – because she’s so excited,” Galeano said. “She was flipping out when she saw it. It was so much more than I expected and it really fits her personality. She’s the funniest kid and likes weird things. She loves to read and likes Edgar Allan Poe and the Brothers Grimm stories.”
Mullen said the idea for Billy’s Gift came to her when she spotted a similar project being featured on a television show. “It just clicked,” she said.
“I knew this was what I was supposed to do and I presented the idea to my husband and children and they said, ‘You’re right,’ and we began,” she said.
“I’ve been that mom,” she continued. “We know what it’s like to be that family. Our son was diagnosed with leukemia just after his first birthday and we spent years traveling to Roswell and Children’s Hospital. We just wanted to get our son well, we weren’t thinking about these sorts of things (like decorating bedrooms). Now, we get to do this for the family, because they have other things to take care of – and the smile on Natalie’s face was priceless.
“It’s all about the child – all of the money we raise and all that we do goes to the child,” she said. I love decorating. And now, we get to use the gifts we have to give to children.”
Mullen added, “They’ve had quite a few struggles, but Natalie is such a sweet girl with an amazing attitude. She just loves life and she’s an inspiration.
“I was thinking as we were working on the room, what a great way for a family to spend a day – helping another family,” she said.
In addition to Belinda and William Mullen, the family includes son Timothy, a student at Brockport State College; daughter Joelle Babcock and her husband, Wade, of Gasport; and daughter DaNeille Kruger and her husband, Neal, of Holley, and their four children, Abrianna, 12, Elizabeth, 11, Brooklyn, 9, and William, 6.
Everyone had a job to perform Saturday, no matter what their age. Mullen credited Joelle with designing the room after she bonded with Natalie on an earlier visit.
“This was a whole family affair and I can’t express that enough,” said Mullen. “And we did everything so that it can move with Natalie when the family moves in a couple of weeks.”
Ericka and her husband, Julio Galeano, Natalie, and Ericka’s younger daughter, Daliana, 11, are moving from Amherst Street in the city to a new apartment closer to Women & Children’s Hospital next month. Knowing this in advance, the Mullens took special care to be sure that all of the improvements they made were portable, even the sticker decorations adorning the walls.
The Mullens completed their first Billy’s Gift project last year for sisters Maia, 5 at the time, and Eowyn Pate, 8, of Albion. They totally transformed the girls’ two bedrooms, painting the rooms, and outfitting them with new furniture and accessories.
Mullen said she started out small – just two years ago – by holding a garage sale at her Town of Lockport home, “where people donated stuff for me to sell.” Next came two fundraisers last year, at Leonard Oakes Estate Winery and Vizcarra Vineyards at Becker Farms. Daughter Joelle also held a small designer purse raffle to help finance Natalie’s shopping spree.
The next fundraiser, entitled “Princesses, Pirates and Pancakes,” is planned for 9 to 11:30 a.m. on Nov. 23 at the FHM Fire Hall, 3353 Hulberton Road, Holley (just north of the Erie Canal). Along with the breakfast, the morning will feature carriage rides, face painting, photos, games and a basket raffle, with all proceeds benefitting Billy’s Gift. Tickets are $10 and may be purchased at the door or by calling DaNeille at (585) 747-5998, Jeana Hayes (585) 509-8860 or Jill Lowell at (585) 414-5687.
The group also is always looking for volunteers, Mullen said.
“Some volunteers help with a fundraiser and some help with the projects, it all depends on how much time someone has to give,” she noted. “If the community didn’t help me, I would never be able to do this. We have a really giving community and I am so thankful for the support I have.”
The Mullens learned about Natalie when her mother answered a request for nominees included in a gift bags donated to Children’s Hospital.
Mullen added that the organization is always looking for nominees. More information may be found at www.BillysGift.org.