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Makeover to help house families with critically ill kids

The celebrity interior designer stood in the street, staring at the apartment complex.

Kelli Ellis, an Orange County native who has showcased her design work on TLC, HGTV and Bravo television networks is in home-improvement mode.

Drills blare in the background. A driveway is being repaved. Painters are rolling color on walls.

"That ugly siding — what is that for?" she asks, pointing a red, manicured fingernail toward the complex's tan, stuccoed exterior. "It's horrible."

For the neighborhood in west Orange, the air of optimism and reinvestment stands in stark contrast to a darker recent past.

The multi-unit apartment building that was once low-income housing is undergoing a major renovation in preparation for its new life.

The property — less than a mile from Children's Hospital of Orange County — is being redeveloped into subsidized housing for families with children battling chronic or life-threatening illnesses.

Ellis is working on this project with Tustin-based charity Miracles for Kids, a nonprofit providing financial aid and basic needs to families with children who are in critical health.

The project started a year ago, when Autumn Strier, president and co-founder of Miracles for Kids, partnered with HomeAid, a national nonprofit that provides housing for the homeless, and the Institute of Real Estate Management, an association of property management professionals, to provide stable housing for Orange County's at-risk families.

The organizations came across a dilapidated though fully occupied apartment complex in Orange of a dozen two- and three-bedroom units.

The living conditions were unacceptable to the group.

The decaying housing, built in 1977, was infested with cockroaches. The plumbing was broken and the carpets were stained. The outdoor wrought-iron staircases were rotting and the grass was dead.

It would be difficult to find another location that close to CHOC, Strier thought, and with help, the site could be repaired and updated.

"It was sub-standard living," Strier said. "I bought this property and then I had a panic attack."

Around 2:30 one morning, Strier decided to turn to the Internet and searched for "celebrity interior designer." After finding a business article on Ellis, Strier sent a message to the designer, asking if she could put a high-level spin on a low-income house with nothing in return.

Ellis was in.

"She's gone above and beyond and is just an absolute godsend," Strier said.

After touring the grounds, Ellis knew she wanted to create a serene, relaxing and inspiring environment for children and families.

With her background as a certified life coach and design psychology coach, Ellis picked out neutral-color leather sofas, bedding and side tables from Ikea. The home-decor retailer donated each piece of furniture.

She picked out non-toxic paints and indoor plants, remembering that living things help speed up the healing process. She hung artwork and installed soft lighting.

The exterior will feature a whimsical wall mural, and the landscape will include a playhouse and playground as well as trees and drought-resistant plants.

Design elements aside, Ellis said the priority was to make the grounds meet the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements for construction and alteration of facilities for people with disabilities.

The crew widened the sidewalks, reconstructed staircases with solid-wooden steps and finished cabinetry with paint containing as few volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, as possible. VOCs are solvents that are released into the air as the paint dries.

Helping the community has run in her family, Ellis said.

When her father was the mayor of Garden Grove, Ellis would volunteer with local organizations. Today, she and her two daughters help out weekly at Caring Kitchen in Costa Mesa.

"It had great bones and huge potential," Ellis said of the design challenge. "I could see past the creepy and the dangerous and get excited for the finished product."

Strier said the organization will select the new tenants based on how often the family has to visit the hospital and their financial situation.

Five families are already preparing to move into the new dwelling, named Miracle Manor, by spring.

"I'm so excited to see the end result," Ellis said. "There's nothing more important than making it feel like home."

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