Once Upon a Room: Recasting our Definitions of Success

By LCHS Principal, Ian McFeat

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Forty five La Canada High School students gathered together, holding hands in the grass vestibule outside of Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. Students were decked in pink and blue shirts, behind them radio flyer wagons parked in the sun, full of stuffed animals, keepsakes, blankets, clothes, a bevy of decorations piled high. Name tags were positioned smartly, naming each of the patients who would have their rooms transformed by a determined and excited group of students.

“Dr. Gold, you and Mr. McFeat will be going to Vicki’s room,” one of the organizing students said to us. “The question is, who will decorate the room better, me, or him?” Dr. Gold waived his hand in my direction. “You see,” he said, “when it comes to decorating, I have years of experience.” The hospital organizer then gathered us together to explain the rules we needed to follow. Students smiled in anticipation as one of the student organizers explained the process to the adults.   

It was early April, and we were at the hospital as part of a the Once Upon A Room project, conceived, funded and run by students.  Remarkably, Once Upon A Room, www.onceuponaroom.org, began as a grant underwritten by LCHS students who applied through Disney and Youth Service America. The $500 dollar grant covered start up costs, yet fell short of the requisite dollars needed. So, students organized a fundraising campaign to garner more resources, raising over $12,000 dollars through their action project.  Over the course of a few months, a $500 dollar grant had morphed into a campaign. The goal of the day was straightforward. Young children, patients on the 6th floor recovery unit,  were about to have their hospital rooms completely made anew. Where once the decor of these hospital rooms consisted of bulletin boards, monitors and windows, they would now be transformed into spaces that reflected the humanity of each patient. Each room would become a personalized space, a unique and individualized retreat, filled with music, sounds, textures, reflecting the character of each patient. 

 In Vicki’s room, Dr. Gold descended upon the decorations as he claimed the far window as his redesign canvas. “It is not a contest, but let’s have the students decide who does a better job,” he said to me as he turned to the students in our group. While Dr. Gold busied himself with balloon and bird decals, two of the students on our team prominently displayed Vicki’s name on an embroidered small blanket above her hospital bed. When I asked one of the parent volunteers what makes these blankets so special, she said that the answer is simple. “Every kid gets a name sign stitched in fabric. When a child is able to see their name on a bulletin board, they are no longer an 8 year old with cancer. That cancer patient is now a child with a name. They see themselves being valued. They are special.” Vicki and her mother returned from physical therapy about an hour later, the room decorated to her tastes. Vicki was so excited when she returned to her room. She gave a high pitched hoot as she grasped the Olivia the Pig books. Balloons and streamers dangled from the bulletin board and Vicki’s mother explained how thankful she was for the room transformation. Vicki’s mother explained that all of their family lived out of the country, and that this support and love felt like “being surrounded by family.” Vicki’s mother thanked the students and let them know her appreciation for their efforts.

In the break room, forty-five students, Dr. Gold and I, and a half dozen parent volunteers gathered to reflect on the experience. The mother of a 3 year patient wanted to say a few words. Her son had been diagnosed with a rare muscular disorder that began when he contracted a virus a few months before. She thanked the students, and said that her son had not smiled in weeks, yet today she saw him light up. She turned to one of the student organizers and finished with, “...when I see teenagers giving back, it gives me hope about our world.”

Dr. Gold taught me a lesson or two in decorating, as he finished first on our team and with double the decals. Students taught me a lesson in what real success looks like. Our Challenge Success program is a foray into redefining and recasting our core values as an institution. For the past few years we have heralded our curricular and extracurricular programs.  We have sent students to top universities and we have been ranked amongst top schools in the state and country. Yet, our students are consistently challenging our narrow definitions of progress. Our students are regularly leading the way, in avenues both big and small. What surprised me most about Once Upon A Room, was not that our students are compassionate and caring, altruistic and nurturing.  What surprised me most is that we do not celebrate this achievement most. We would do well to listen to the wisdom of our students, as challenging success is not a new concept for them at all. They do it all the time.