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LARGO – Joe Campenella didn’t know what to expect when the Children’s Dream Fund first contacted him and asked if he would redesign a shed into a playhouse for a little girl who had survived a rare cancer.
The CEO of the Largo-based company Florida Shed & Fence now counts his participation in the fulfillment of the little girl’s dream an honor and a pleasure he’ll never forget.
“I’m glad and proud to know that I could make that kid that happy,” he said.
Rafaela Taft, who goes by the nickname Fia, was 6 years old when she started exhibiting early and dramatic signs of puberty, explained her mother, Angela Taft. As symptoms worsened, doctors eventually discovered a baseball-size tumor on her ovary – a rare form of stage-three cancer.
“She had an outrageously high pregnancy hormones raging through her body,” her mother said.
At All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, surgeons removed Fia’s left ovary and fallopian tube. The family opted to participate in a study that would decrease her time in chemotherapy.
“It was very intense. Every two weeks, we were heading into the hospital. It was always an in-patient stay for at least five days,” Angela Taft said.
Despite losing her hair and not feeling well, “she was very cheery for a little girl going through so much,” her mother added.
When she was first diagnosed, Fia’s life-threatening illness qualified her for a wish through the Make-a-Wish Foundation. But somewhere during her therapy, paperwork was misplaced and a deadline passed by. As Fia’s cancer went into remission, the Children’s Dream Fund, a St. Petersburg nonprofit with a 32-year history, stepped in to grant her a wish.
“The oncologist said, ‘She does deserve it; she’s been through a lot,’” Angela Taft remembered.
Dream Coordinator Kim Brett met with the family last summer to find out what Fia had dreamed up.
“She took a long time to decide what she wanted,” Angela Taft said. “Initially she wanted a two-story house with stairs and carpet.”
Fia decided on a playhouse to be built behind her family’s house in Crystal River. But she didn’t want just any playhouse. She wanted it “pink and sparkling and purple,” Brett recalled. She wanted to be able to stand up and walk around and sleep in an “upstairs” loft.
Brett relayed the vision to Campenella. The base for the design is a model in the mid-range of what Florida Shed offers – a barn-style shed 12 feet by 16 feet in size.
“Needless to say, we designed our building a little different to accommodate with her desires and what she wanted,” Campenella said.
The design included a front deck and windows with window boxes for flowers. It would be painted purple and have a loft accessible via a ladder.
The final product was valued at $8,000. The Dream Foundation insisted on reimbursing Campenella for his materials, a little more than $3,000. The foundation raises donations to cover those costs.
“This was a big dream, expensive,” Brett said, explaining Campenella’s generosity. “As the dream unfolded, he got very very excited. He couldn’t do enough.”
In October, Fia’s dream became a reality. The playhouse was constructed and decorated in three days. Fia wasn’t allowed into the yard until the project was completed.
“It was funny to watch my daughter watch from the window,” Angela Taft said.
Though Campenella hasn’t participated in the construction of a shed in the last five years, he helped out with this project.
“I literally participated in the construction and the painting and the decorating of this,” he said. “It feels so different to be able to do something like that. I’d do it a 100 times over if I was asked to.”
Fia’s reaction was priceless, he said.
“The look on her face when she seen it – it just brings chills to you when you think about it,” Campenella said. “It was such a big deal to her.”
Florida Shed & Fence has had its share of troubles. The 17-year-old business had grown to nine locations across the state of Florida before 2007 brought more financial stress than could be managed. The company went through bankruptcy and downsized to just two locations within Pinellas County. But since then, circumstances have improved.
“We’ve been back on track now for over a year, and our business just continues to grow,” Campenella said.
He added that he no longer wants the company to be as big as it was. But sales have been good and have allowed him to give back, even in ways he never expected, like building a dream playhouse.
“I never imagined it would have been so much fun,” he said of the experience. “If I had kids, I’d spoil them pretty good.”
Angela Taft said her daughter is doing “very well.” There’s still follow-up appointments to make sure the cancer remains in remission. But Fia is still reveling in the “best playhouse you can could ever expect.”
Fia is already making plans for her 10th birthday at the end of March. She’s still deciding on a theme, but the festivities will most certainly include a slumber party in the playhouse.
“It was such a gift. It was more than we ever expected and more than she ever expected,” Angela said.
But Campenella feels similarly about the experience.
“This just turned into something that I tell everybody about, and I’ll never forget it,” he said. “I really wish I could do it again.”
A purple replica of Fia’s playhouse is on display on the property of Florida Shed & Fence, at 6425 Ulmerton Road in Largo. Campenella said he sold a few smaller versions of the playhouse over the holidays. Visit www.floridashed.com.