Heart Deco

updated 01/19/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/19/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

Are you ready?" asks 6-year-old Robert Holmes as he flings open his bedroom door: "Ta-daaa!" And there they are: spots. Lotsa spots. The entire room has a dalmatian theme; hounds perch on a tabletop, climb the walls and decorate the bedsheets. And not a hint of Cruella De Vil. "When I first came in here," says Robert, who wears a back brace because of damage caused by a tumor on his spine, "I was amazed. I was so surprised."

Score one for the Suite Dreams Project, a charity headed by Kay Ponicall, 35, and Kris Appleby, 34, best pals from Bloomfield Hills, Mich. So far they've turned the bedrooms of 51 seriously ill children into private wonderlands—everything from fairy princess boudoirs to safari-themed retreats to a garden room filled with flowers. The ideas come from the kids themselves. "It's more than just uplifting," says Ponicall, who owns a home-furnishings store. "It's about healing, giving them comfort and helping them through a hard time."

Inspiration struck three years ago, when Ponicall's brother, an artist, painted a mural for the room shared by her children Emma, 4, and Jack, 3. Ponicall was thrilled, and the proverbial light-bulb went off. She shared the idea with Appleby, a mother of three, and soon the pair were organizing fund-raisers, contacting hospitals and recruiting the volunteer carpenters and artists who turn the suite ideas into reality. "By the time it's over, it's like you've been running a marathon," says Appleby. The prize? Ask Robert Holmes. "I love my dalmatians," he says. "I even have dog dreams."

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