FACETIME- Donor by design: Dahlstrom's decors diminish discomforts

Kathy Dahlstrom

Kathy Dahlstrom says she has always been creative and outgoing. Four years ago, as a three-year breast cancer survivor, she decided to combine those traits with her casual interests and most trying life experiences to create something that quickly became more than just a hobby; it became a philanthropic passion.

Dahlstrom, 51, is the founder and primary force behind Rooms for a Reason, a non-profit organization under the umbrella of the Virginia Organizing Project that helps ease the miseries of the seriously ill by redecorating a room in their house– everything from paint and upholstery to furniture and carpets.

But Dahlstrom has no formal training in interior design, and she's no Patricia Kluge. She's a nanny who juggles not only other people's kids, but also her marriage, a daughter, three dogs, four cats, and a chinchilla in addition to her charitable organization.

"I guess it just comes naturally to me," Dahlstrom chuckles when asked how she manages. "I just love doing it."

It probably wouldn't happen if she didn't. Dahlstrom, who moved to Charlottesville from San Diego 15 years ago, does almost everything for Rooms for a Reason: she finds patients through social workers, doctors, hospitals, and friends, sometimes going as far as Manassas to redecorate for people. She seeks donations from local stores and scours yard sales and Craigslist for bargain furniture. She recruits volunteer designers and handymen, and, when necessary, dips into her own pocket to get things done.

"I don't have a lot of money to donate to charity," Dahlstrom explains, "so this is how I help people."

And she has no doubt that she's changing people's lives more than just aesthetically. "With recuperation, 75 percent is keeping your spirits up," she says.

"Kathy is a uniquely beautiful soul," says Ann Atwell, a social worker who assists Dahlstrom in finding referrals. "She lives her life giving and receiving love by doing what she loves to do."

Dahlstrom admits that having a beautiful space is no cure, but she does believe there's value in "making people happy in that trying time in their lives." 

She smiles when she tells the story of one sick boy and gonzo Redskins fan whose room she redid in burgundy and gold, complete with a life-size action portrait of wide-receiver Santana Moss painted on the wall.

"This kid's face lit up like a Christmas tree, and I thought, 'That's what it's all about right there,'" she says.

For others who benefit from Rooms for a Reason, it may be less about ecstatic joy and more about a comfortable way to die at home. Speaking of one older woman she helped, Dahlstrom somberly recalls, "She passed away in that room; she wanted to pass away in that room."

Looking ahead, Dahstrom has no plans of slowing down her sometimes hectic life. "I don't feel 51," she laughs. "I don't act 51." 

And she wants nothing more than to expand her pet project. "I don't ever want to stop doing this," she says.