Sheila Grubb has never forgotten the hardships of her childhood in Brunswick, Georgia. Her father, an insurance salesman, struggled to make ends meet, and the family was forced to move to a poorer neighborhood across town when Sheila was 7. The following year he died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack. Her mother, Sherolyn, who had stayed home to raise Sheila and her older brother, managed to find full-time work as a bookkeeper, but money was still scarce. Not that Sherolyn ever complained. "She used what little we had, and a lot of elbow grease, to transform our drab little house into a cheerful place, which she had learned from her mother," says Sheila, 38. "She planted flowers everywhere, painted my room a beautiful sky blue, bought me a new comforter, and made three pillows—each with one of my initials—to match. With all that my mom had to deal with, she still managed to do something really special for me."
And it made all the difference. Sheila thrived, at home and beyond. After graduating from high school, she moved to Atlanta to study art and art history at Georgia State University, paying her way with student loans and government grants. Eventually she landed a job as a sales associate with the Atlanta Decorative Arts Center at one of their showrooms, which displayed furniture, fabric, lighting, and other home accessories for architects, builders, and designers. In 1998 a friend asked Sheila to help make over her young daughter's room. "She was so happy with how it turned out I ended up redoing her entire house," says Sheila. "That experience gave me the confidence to become a freelance interior designer. I didn't realize it at the time, but in a way I was following in my mother's footsteps."
Sheila had been working as a decorator for several years when she learned that a friend at church, Robin Caswell, 20, had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and given only months to live. Sheila helped put together a group of friends to collect furniture, paintings, plants, and other items for the small apartment that Robin, a newlywed, was about to move into with her husband, Jovan. Knowing that Robin would soon be confined to her room, Sheila focused on making the space as beautiful as possible. She created a bed canopy by attaching a scarf curtain to the ceiling and walls, and placed the bed so that Robin could look out the window to the yard, where Sheila and other church members would gather and sing to her. When Robin died six months later, "It sparked something in me," says Sheila. "Robin and Jovan spent some happy days in the home because it was decorated with love. I wanted to do more of these projects, to lift the spirits of people in need."