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Sophie's castle: Area nonprofit brightens the day of a young crash victim

MERRIFIELD--Sometimes, a smile says more than words ever could. This was the case with 5-year-old Sophie Kujava's smile Sunday afternoon when she stepped into her newly remodeled bedroom. Princess-themed and freshly painted pink, Sophie's room no...

Casey Kujava looks up at his daughter Sophie Kujava on her new castle bed in her bedroom Sunday. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video)
Casey Kujava looks up at his daughter Sophie Kujava on her new castle bed in her bedroom Sunday. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video)

MERRIFIELD-Sometimes, a smile says more than words ever could.

This was the case with 5-year-old Sophie Kujava's smile Sunday afternoon when she stepped into her newly remodeled bedroom. Princess-themed and freshly painted pink, Sophie's room now features a lofted bed styled like a castle and decor to match. Hanging on one side of the castle bed were three new princess dresses along with dress-up shoes and a tiara.

"It's unbelievable," Casey Kujava, her father, said. "Just seeing her smile and so happy."

Almost 11 months ago, Sophie's future was uncertain as she lay in the intensive care unit at Minneapolis Children's Hospital with a brain injury, liver laceration, fractured humerus with extensive nerve damage and multiple bowel perforations. She and her 24-year-old mother, Macy Kujava, were critically injured on the morning of Jan. 15 in a head-on crash when an unlicensed driver crossed the centerline on County Highway 3 near Legionville Road.

It was while Sophie was in intensive care that she was nominated to be a recipient of a gift from the Brighter Days Foundation. The mission of the Baxter nonprofit organization is to improve the lives of seriously ill children in the Brainerd lakes area by providing a meaningful gift or experience meant to brighten their day.

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"We like to just surprise them and the family with something to kind of lighten their load," said Carrie Cowell, a committee volunteer with the foundation who helped to coordinate much of Sophie's gift. "We had a plan in the works for quite awhile (for Sophie). It is one of our bigger projects we've done."

The donation of time and materials by multiple lakes area professionals and businesses, along with support from the Mall of America, helped to make Sophie's two-part gift a reality. The foundation organized a weekend getaway to the Twin Cities for Sophie, Casey and her grandparents and Macy's parents Sue and Mark Vanek, including a stay at the Radisson Blu hotel, shopping and attractions at the Mall of America and coverage of the cost of meals and gas.

Meanwhile, with the family out of town, volunteers and family friends worked to transform Sophie's room from top to bottom on Saturday-beginning with moving the castle bed in multiple parts to the Vaneks' home, where Sophie lives.

Doug Oldham was the volunteer team leader on Sophie's gift project. An independent architect, Oldham designed the castle bed and utilized contacts throughout multiple industries to acquire donations for the gift.

Jeanni Foss, president and founder of the Brighter Days Foundation, said they initially considered an outdoor playhouse for Sophie, but Oldham thought the bed would be a way for the girl to use her gift every day.

"I didn't want it to be just a piece of furniture," Oldham said. "I wanted it to be her room. I wanted her to come in and it actually change the room, so she doesn't just have a little castle to play with. She's in a castle."

The Home Depot in Baxter donated all of the materials required to build the bed and Crow Wing Cabinets of Brainerd cut all of the flat material. Next, Oldham built the bed with the help of Jeremy Johnston, owner of Northland Construction in Merrifield, his employees and volunteers from The Home Depot. Following completion of trim work and sanding, the bed went on to its next stop, which was Gary's Painting in Brainerd. After most of the painting was completed, volunteer Terri Bahn did the detail painting work to make it look even more like a castle.

With nearly every piece of the bed and the time and labor needed to build it donated, the budget for Sophie's gift went to remodeling her room, gifts for the family and elements of the Twin Cities trip.

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Only Sophie's grandmother Sue was aware of the bedroom transformation part of the gift-it was a surprise to Casey, Mark and, of course, Sophie.

"When we pulled into the driveway, she (Sophie) said, 'I think there's a party here for me now,'" Sue said. "I've heard about them (the Brighter Days Foundation) in the past and have been watching what they're doing. Now, to get to be a recipient makes it even more special."

At least 20 surgeries and numerous physical therapy and specialist appointments later, Sophie's health is almost entirely restored and she requires no additional follow-up at this time. Macy, meanwhile, remains under 24-hour care at a nursing home, but continues to make small improvements, Sue said. This includes reading and communicating via Scrabble tiles.

"She's recognizing people a lot more now, she's doing more physical therapy, she's actually helping to assist with things like getting clothes on and off," Sue said. "We're seeing a lot of little changes that are really encouraging."

The family is waiting for a bed to become available at a Courage Kenny rehabilitation center, based in the Allina Health system, so Macy can begin intensive inpatient physical rehabilitation. Although Macy continues to improve and the family's hopes for her recovery grow stronger everyday, Sophie still must live day-to-day life without her mother. The heartbreak of this fact is not lost on those who helped make her day a little brighter.

"This poor girl has gone through so much," Oldham said. "Hopefully this gives her a little moment-hopefully lots of moments-where she can forget all of the trials she's going through and feel good for a little while."

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

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Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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