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Nancy Ballard: How It All Began

PS: RoomsThatRock4Chemo has been called an “accidental non profit” as I was not looking for a project, let alone a 24/7 volunteer job. I cannot exactly say why I was so moved in this direction or why I took it on so personally. Maybe it was a reaction to the blessing that I am physically well as is my family. Maybe it was the artist in me that was literally shocked that an environment could be so hopeless. I do know they scared me. And they should scare you. Hope on board!

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Hello, I am Nancy Ballard. I am a born and raised San Franciscan, third generation. One of eight children, my dad owned a bar, my mother was a nurse.

Let me take you back to May 11, 2011 …

I am retired! I am just 8 days into my 61st year. Healthy, happy and loved, I am busier than ever and enjoy every day. Married 35 years, with three grown great kids, two grandkids. In 2009, I completed the Master Botanical Illustration Program at Strybring Arboretum in San Francisco. I fall in love with the amazing texture, depth and color I find in watercolors. I fall in love with each plant I am fortunate enough to paint. I enjoy a wonderful retired career as a master botanical illustrator, and the corporate world behind me … I am as full as I can be.

My dreams are truly coming true – A publisher just picked up my third book, and I am about to start on a selling tour. Our only daughter is getting married in two months and our eldest son is working on his new home in St. Louis. Our middle son is having his first child in October. They say you are only as happy as your saddest child and my cup truly is running over.

My daughter-in-law is an oncology nurse and I am instructed to get a whopping cough vaccination as soon as possible, so I will be germ free to hold the sweet new bundle of joy upon her arrival.

I make an appointment with my general practitioner, Dr. Hufford, who is also an oncology doctor. Thankfully no one in our family has need of these services and I actually don’t give it much thought. However, this fateful day, as I wait for my vaccination his nurse expresses interest in a botanical I have with me to deliver to a client. The nurse wishes out loud, “We would love to have something as lovely as your art in our chemotherapy rooms.”

“What chemotherapy rooms?” I have no idea chemotherapy is administered in the office and I request a tour.

We take a left hand turn in the hallway (I usually go to the right) and sure enough, there they are – dark, sad, drab and lonely looking rooms. One in particular strikes me. It appears two-toned when really the paint from removed artifacts is a shade lighter. I see naked nails and chipped plaster and nothing else. The walls are empty. My heart hurts and my eyes fill with tears.

On his behalf, Dr. Hufford has been through a one-year leave, suffering from cancer himself. One of the senior doctors retires and takes his belongings off the walls. I am stunned, sad and know something has to be done; someone must take action.

Not me. I am inadequate, without skills or the knowledge to help make a difference. It is so overwhelming, where would I even start? And where would one (me) find the time, the money, and the volunteer talent to do something, anything to bring some comfort into these rooms.

I would do it if I could, I am a life long volunteer, I know the difference even one person makes. However, this is way too big, way too complicated, and yet, way too necessary. I know as an artist that environment matters, art heals and color has an impact on our living spaces. I am conflicted.

I promise the nurse I will return with botanicals for each room. I go home despondent. I have never been an interior designer, but I know this fact is not an excuse I can use. And, I know one piece of art is not going to make the difference I desire to make.

Once home, I tell my husband. I explain what I have seen and how I feel. I ask for his help and advice. I know together we will do something, but what, how?

He informs me I do not have any spare time to take on yet another project and suggests I let it go. He reminds me I have done much more than most all my life and this project is just another one I don’t need to get involved it.

Wrong answer. 🙂

But I can’t. The rooms haunt me. I cannot imagine being sick, suffering from such a frightening illness AND having to sit in a gloomy room with little or no hope. It is not acceptable. Okay, I admit it, I pray. I count my blessings I have the ability to help. There is nothing else to do.

The next day, quite by accident, I find a website, Houzz. It is a resource for interior designers. I read through hundred’s of mission statements and feel there is a possible connection. Yes, a professional will know how to help. I draft an email and send it to 20 local San Francisco designers.

I explain the state of the sad rooms and what I know needs to be done – paint, design, furniture, lighting, window dressing – and the bigger need of providing patients the opportunity to feel as if they are home, of being important enough to deserve a lovely space that someone took the time to design, to receive treatment in an environment that isn’t as scary and ugly as the illness they are being treated for – to feel “worth it”, to dare to imagine someone cares.

My ask – Will you transform one chemo room, just one – using all your own resources, talent, expertise, finances, supplies, connections, and laborers- for someone you don’t know and will most likely never meet? Will you make a difference? Does it matter?

I explain I am not a nonprofit (yet) and all I can offer is my sincere gratitude that we might, together make these rooms a little bit more soothing and hopeful. I am just me, a nobody, asking for a lot. There is no one to ‘Google’, no references to check. I am a stranger, but a perfect stranger.

Four designers responded right away, and thank me for the opportunity to help. They all have one thing in common; they have sat in these rooms before with a mother, brother, lover and/or sibling. They understand exactly what I am asking for.

They actually thank me for the opportunity to make a difference. They share my feelings, yet somehow they just got too busy and never followed through. Several reached out to nonprofits, and asked them to transform the office spaces. They declined.

And so it begins. We work together.

I present this, my first project to Dr. Hufford as a gift, not an option. I express my lofty intentions in a card with a big bow. He is overwhelmed and most appreciative as is his staff. We start in September and it takes a little over a year to completion.

I am nominated for and receive the Jefferson Award by Dr. Hufford. September 2012, a thank you party for the seven original designers is a present from Dr. Hufford. Sadly, he passes from cancer in October.

As a result of one very small decision, I replicate this process over and over, 20 times to be exact! With the support of vendors, designers, sponsors and local volunteers in the many cities and countries we visit, over half a million patient visits per year are in Rooms That Rock. We are our own 501c3 nonprofit corporation.

I am able to experience first hand, the power of these rooms – when sorrow and fear turn into a smile, a bit of hope, a tiny bit of joy, by patients of all ages, by loved ones and family, nurses, doctors, and staff.

Each project takes months, sometimes years, to be realized. Behind the scenes, every aspect is thought out, delegated, financed and prepared into one quick and concise weekend as our team comes in and gets it done. I personally spend the majority of my waking hours overseeing each aspect of each project. My husband and I have personally donated thousands of dollars to cover the unlimited expenses a new business incurs. We now have hope these expenses will be paid via donations, fundraisers with facilities that want to rock their rooms and events. No regrets.


Friday afternoon, your chemotherapy session is over. Finally. The drab walls and kind faced nurses say good-bye, and wish you a good weekend. They promise to see you Monday bright and early. Everyone is tired.

Another weekend. Another Monday, looming in the future with the fear and difficulty of chemotherapy yet again. You can do it, you know you can. It would be nicer however, if it wasn’t so…. what…. so hard, lonely, scary?

Monday morning, already. You walk into your chemotherapy center; shuffle actually, shoulders sagging, head down. No hurry. You look up to sign in at the front desk to find it, well, unrecognizable! There is fresh, soothing paint on all the walls; beautiful artwork adorns the walls, a possible mural, some stencils, often there are new privacy curtains and chemotherapy chairs. Even the waiting room looking inviting and fresh. You can feel the brilliance, the kindness coming out of each nook and cranny. You wonder, who would do such a thing? Why our Center, how did this happen? I know you feel the sparkle of the volunteers who wished to make a bit of a difference for you. Who gave up their weekend to make your visit a bit more upbeat? Yes, for you!

You look around, waiting for someone to explain, someone to thank, someone to laugh with, to share your hopefulness, enthusiasm and gratitude.

But there is no one there. Just the sweetness left behind by many sweet souls who care about you and your difficulty journey. They are happy to be anonymous; they don’t do it to be acknowledged. Nope! Knowing the gift they receive is in the giving and in doing what they can to remind you that you DO matter. How you feel matters; how you heal matters.

Just like the Easter Bunny there is no one there, however the sweetness, the treats left behind, are there to cherish and experience.

It only takes one person. I invite you to share the next chapter of this amazing journey. Let it be you!

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