Susan Wintersteen has built a thriving interior design business in San Diego, California, offering a sought-after trio of build, design and furnish services through her Savvy Interiors firm.
Wintersteen loves that work but it’s her firm’s philanthropic arm, Savvy Giving by Design, that has given her some of the most gratifying moments of her career. To help more kids, the charity has created chapters around the country, led by other philanthropic-minded interior designers committed to giving back to their communities.
Helping the first child
Wintersteen has a long history of volunteering for a variety of causes, but a request several years ago encouraged her to focus on children with medical crises. A friend of a friend’s daughter had been diagnosed with cancer. Not a fan of cooking, Wintersteen didn’t feel able to help with the meal train being set up for the family, but she volunteered to give the girl’s room a makeover as a treat before she started undergoing treatments.
“When we went out to see the house, I was more nervous meeting this young girl than I’d been meeting any of my high-end clients,” she recalls. After the visit, Wintersteen knew she could make the room more comfortable and functional for the girl — and even do a refresh of her sibling’s room, too. In a few days, Wintersteen’s team raised $6,000 through social media and went to work.
Seeing how much the makeover helped the girl and her family, Wintersteen’s team tackled a few more projects for other children. Then, in 2014, she started Savvy Giving by Design, a nonprofit focused on designing bedrooms for children facing medical crises, at no cost to the families.
People often have a misconception that ill or badly injured children spend all their time in the hospital, Wintersteen says. While they may spend a significant amount of time there, often much of their treatment and recovery is done at home. That means lots of hours spent in their bedrooms. “I think with Covid, people can relate more than ever. When you’re home and stuck there day after day, you get bored really fast,” Wintersteen says. “These kids can’t go to swim parties. They can’t go to sleepovers or restaurants or movie theaters if they were recently paralyzed or diagnosed with a brain tumor. … Their room becomes their sanctuary.”
The turnaround on the rooms is quick, a bit like TV makeover shows. The Savvy Giving team visits the home to meet with the child and the family about their needs and preferences, then takes photos and detailed room measurements. Like other design projects, next comes sourcing of furnishings and materials, but, in these cases, also fundraising through social media. (Wintersteen says she’s fortunate to work with a team of contractors who often donate time and/or materials for the projects.)
Once the family clears out the bedroom, the Savvy Giving team typically starts work on a Monday and finishes by Friday, with volunteers doing the finishing touches. “We try to make it fun. We put the ‘Caution’ tape across the door so that when they open door, they get that ‘Wow’ moment,” Wintersteen says.
A key part of the effort is doing a refresh of siblings’ rooms, too. “Siblings can be a huge part of a child’s recovery, and they’re stressed out and sometimes get lost in the whole process of their sibling being sick,” Wintersteen says. Though on a smaller scale — perhaps new paint and artwork — the update of siblings’ rooms also has a big impact on the struggling families.
Over the years, Savvy Giving has redone more than 75 rooms (including siblings’ rooms) in the San Diego area. Before the pandemic, the team was averaging a project every six weeks or so.
How you can get involved
The first Savvy Giving by Design chapter started in Alabama, and there are now about a dozen scattered around the country. (You can find a list and learn more about starting your own chapter here.)
Chapters are independent, with their own boards of directors and running their own fundraising efforts, but they operate under national bylaws and guidelines, which include a requirement to do one to three room makeovers a year.
More recently, Savvy Giving started a Pop-Up Designer program, which matches designers around the country with the Make-a-Wish Foundation. The designers create the room design, specifying furnishings and finishes, and then Make-A-Wish volunteers do the actual renovation.
In organizing new Savvy Giving chapters, Wintersteen seeks experienced designers who have the organizational capacity to take on projects, from fundraising to the big reveal of the finished rooms.
“I’m looking for designers that really want to make this part of their giving-back philanthropy. It’s a commitment, and you need to have a good support system because you can’t (do these projects) in isolation. You need a support system of colleagues and resources you can tap,” she says. “I really love collaborating with local designers here in San Diego that have businesses similar to mine — that we get to work together on these volunteer projects, toward a common goal.”
In terms of expanding chapters, Wintersteen says: “I would love to help as many children as possible. … I just think that these children deserve joyful lives. The things some of them have been forced to go through at a young age are traumatic and heartbreaking. If you think you could have an impact and align with us and see the power of numbers, I would love to have as many committed designers as we can.” Coming up: Next week we talk with Susan Wintersteen about the unique considerations involved with designing for children facing medical crises.