THE HIRO OF THIS STORY: Mandalay Bay carpenter Hiro Kajiyama builds ‘special spaces’ for ailing children
About a year after her 7-year-old son was diagnosed with stage-four brain cancer, Amy Schildknecht’s family was introduced to a hero.
Or, in this case, a Hiro.
“His name says it all,” Schildknecht says of Hiro Kajiyama, a Mandalay Bay carpenter who came into her life about four years ago. “Hiro truly is a hero.”
Kajiyama wanted to transform a room in Schildknecht’s home into a haven for her son, James. A place where the little boy could spend time away from the grownup challenges of his very serious illness. James would pick the room’s theme. It could be anything he wanted.
Naturally, he chose Star Wars. Kajiyama, with help from some fellow carpenters and other volunteers, turned the family’s boring playroom into a galaxy far, far away. A galaxy with one unexpected feature: a tearoom area for James’ little sister, Juju.
“James will tell you his favorite part of the entire thing is they thought about his sister,” Schildknecht says. “They are best friends.”
James’ playroom was far from Kajiyama’s first transformation, and certainly wouldn’t be his last. He’s a longtime volunteer—and also Las Vegas chapter director for Special Spaces, a nationwide nonprofit that creates dream rooms (bedrooms, usually) for children with life-threatening illnesses. The local chapter’s many creations over the past dozen or so years include Little Mermaid, Hello Kitty and Ninja Turtles rooms, fairy and princess rooms, and a Japanese garden room.
Kajiyama recently received MGM Resorts International’s “Volunteer of the Year” award in recognition of his tireless volunteerism. Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters Local 1977 also recently honored him for his many hours of volunteer service.
Kajiyama, 65, says his goal is “to help people as long as I can breathe and move.” Toward that end, much of his Silverado Ranch home is dedicated to his volunteer work. Instead of a garage, he has a workshop, like Santa. Bins full of children’s books are neatly stacked inside his home, part of one of his several other volunteer efforts — supplying reading material for children in hospitals (a whole other story).
“One thing leads to another,” he explains with a smile.
Tammie Hampton calls Kajiyama “one of the most generous people I have ever met in my life.” Hampton, who in November received Henderson’s Heart of the City Award for her own extensive volunteer work, is an educator at the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at The Mirage. She also volunteers for Special Spaces. Among other things, she brings families to the habitat for a tour while their rooms are being remodeled.
“On the day of the build, we try to get the family out of the house so they can come home for the grand reveal,” she says.
Hampton credits Kajiyama’s selflessness in part to his Hawaiian heritage. Of Hawaiian and Japanese descent, he grew up on the Big Island. He’s lived in Las Vegas since 1996.
“He lives with a lot of Hawaiian values,” Hampton says. “That sense of community really drives him.”
Kajiyama says “the power of aloha connects all of us” and that doing for others provides “food for the soul.” He believes in karma, that “if you do good it will come back to you.” For example, he’s built 45 changing tables for expectant parents he’s gotten to know over the years. “My payment is I’ve become an uncle 45 times.”
Kimberly Aitken says Kajiyama does “anything he can to bring a smile to a child’s face.” He created a beautiful, ocean-themed bedroom, including a wall-sized mural of an ocean view, for Kennedy, the youngest of Aitken’s three children, who was diagnosed with leukemia at age 3.
It took Aitken years to accept Kajiyama’s offer. At first, the family worried about bringing other people into their home while Kennedy was so sick. Then Kennedy’s father, Eric — an engineer at Mandalay Bay — unexpectedly died.
“Bless Hiro’s heart,” Aitken says. “A while later, he reached out again, through a mutual friend. I had no idea how awesome it would be.”
Kajiyama met with Kennedy when she was 8 or 9 years old. They came up with a plan for her room together. “It was super cute,” Aitken says. “They sat on the floor together. They went through color swatches together. He made it all about her.”
Now 11, Kennedy’s doing great, her mom says. A straight-A student, she’s been off chemotherapy for six years, is cancer-free and “as sweet and kind as they come.”
Schildknecht’s son James also is doing well, though he still has lots of doctor appointments. He’s been out of treatment for two years, is also a straight-A student and “unbelievably awesome,” his mom says.
“He’s our little miracle. We just cross our fingers every day that we get more time.”
Nearly five years ago, doctors said James might not make it to his 8th birthday. On March 21, he’ll celebrate his 12th.
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