A number didn’t matter to Maija Dunham on her 14th birthday. Instead, she focused all of her attention on a letter – M.

Maija found a unique project for her newly redecorated bedroom in her Homewood home through an online search: She asked each of her party guests decorate a wood cutout of the letter ‘m’ to hang on a wall. Her adoptive mother took that idea one step further by asking more than 70 people to decorate a letter for Maija.

“The idea was really for them to decorate it in a way that means something to her about their relationship,” said Kim Dunham, Maija’s aunt who adopted her niece several years ago.

Most of the gift-givers succeeded, Maija said. She can point to specific letters on her wall and explain how the decorations are tied to a story involving that person. She definitely has her preferences though.

“The one from Aunt Kim is my favorite,” she said, pointing to a letter near the center of the wall styled in her aunt’s preferred style of jewelry. “It just reminds me of her a lot.”

The letters cover an entire bright pink wall of Maija’s room, evidence of all the friends the girl has made since she was adopted by her aunt and uncle 3 1 / 2 years ago.

Maija lived with her mother, Shelly Burnham, in a small Michigan town, but it soon became clear to Kim Dunham that her niece would be better off in a place with more activities and more supervision. Her sister just couldn’t care for Maija after a series of decisions that left her in a bad situation, Kim Dunham said.

“I was never worried that (Maija would) have trouble making friends here,” she said. “She’s so outgoing. I was just surprised at how willing she was to talk to just anybody.”

Maija’s mother died in July, but she is convinced that a letter from her would be hanging on her bedroom wall if she had the chance.

“I don’t know what she would have done,” Maija said, laughing as she looked up to the ceiling. “She would have really liked to do one though.”

“I never thought of that before,” Kim Dunham said quietly, looking up at the ceiling like her niece.

Kim Dunham did consider making a letter covered in pictures of Shelly but didn’t want to make the day too sad. Instead, Maija’s grandmother decorated a letter with some of her mother’s old jewelry – Maija’s favorite accessories for dress-up games when she was younger.

“It was really surprising how excited and enthusiastic people were” even those who weren’t family, Kim Dunham said. “And you could tell the people who tried so hard because they were extra excited to give me the letter and explain exactly how they made it.”

Many wooden letters, plenty of glitter, feathers, nails and “thank yous” later, Maija said she was grateful for the hard work of her friends and relatives.

“I really can tell how individual they are,” she said. “I love that I know who made each one.”

© Copyright 2009 The Southtown Star