Most of us wouldn't think that there is a lot of art to working in the nonprofit world, and that's probably a pretty fair assessment. Many agencies that work with struggling families are so focused on providing basic assistance like food and shelter that sometimes life's finer details aren't always considered.
Lisa Robison, a local designer and founder of nonprofit Dwell With Dignity, found a creative way to use her own talents to make the lives of families in need a little brighter. Her organization brings together artists, interior designers and the community to provide design services to families transitioning into permanent housing. We sat down with Robison to talk about how she got the idea for Dwell With Dignity, the logistics of creating art and designing on a budget, and what that all means for the families her organization works with.
How did you first get the idea for Dwell With Dignity? I'm a designer by trade, and I had taken off about 10 years of doing professional interior design work to raise my kids. I absolutely had to do something creative, and I had worked on my own projects over that time, just nothing professional. My son was going into kindergarten, and it was time for me to figure out what I was going to do. I love interior design and the creative aspects of it, and I knew I wanted to do that, but not necessarily with the privileged clientele that I had been used to.
I thought that I wasn't ready to make that kind of time commitment, which is kind of a joke because I started Dwell With Dignity and it's been this all-consuming project. It sounds kind of corny, but I picked up this book by Oprah Winfrey, and she said that you have to find what it is that you're passionate about, what you're talented at, and figure out how you can give that back to your community. It got me thinking about design and how important it is to have your environment reflect who you are. It's the people who can least afford good design who can benefit the most from it. I started putting together a plan to do design for families that were struggling. Then my birthday came around, my husband kept asking me what I wanted for my birthday, and I said that I wanted the nest egg to start a nonprofit.
How do you find the families that your organization works with? We team up with local agencies who are already helping these families get access to services. They have the resources to help them get back on their feet, and they identify a mother with children who has the grit and determination to move forward. That's how it's worked from the very beginning, and it's been very successful.
Why is design so important to families who are trying to get back on their feet? There are so many things. In the very beginning, it's hope. We want to provide an environment that inspires hope. It makes them feel confident. It makes them feel like they have accomplished something. I always tell my families when they move in that they're getting this gift because they've been taking all the right steps to change their family's future. Even just the physical benefits are tremendous. When you're a kid that is sleeping on a mattress with Mom or brothers and sisters, it doesn't inspire hope. It also doesn't give you a good night's sleep.
There are very real physical things like that. When you don't have anywhere to do your homework as a child and you're sitting criss-cross applesauce on the floor doing a paper, it doesn't inspire good academics. We find that our families start to thrive in their lives once they move into their homes. We have mothers whose confidence grows so much that they start to seek out better jobs and work to make their neighborhoods better. We had one mom who started a tenant's association because her house was so beautiful and they started going to advice for her about things. They went to her so they could have a voice.
We're building better lives for our families. If you don't have any furniture in your home, do you have birthday parties? Do you have holiday celebrations? A friend told me once that she hated her birthday growing up because she knew that nothing special was going to happen. She said that she just didn't make friends because she didn't want people to see how she lived. So she wasn't just missing out on having playdates, she didn't have any friends. Just think about how important a home is to your psychology and how it feels to start and end your day in the place that you call home. When you live in poverty, you're often rent-chasing and moving from place to place. When we provide a home, they're in a place where Mom now has a job and can pay the bills. And that means that they stay put.
I would imagine that it's interesting to transition from working with privileged clientele to working on a non-profit basis. Do you have to get really creative to make it all come together? That's really what makes it so fun. As an interior designer, you go through showrooms and pick your fabrics and you're inspired by what you see and what your budget is. With Dwell With Dignity, we're inspired by the donations we get. Or even an idea for a piece of art that we can create, and that becomes the start for the design for our projects. We do a lot of refurbishing of furniture. Every project is a completely new and fresh approach, because it has to be. The design community has really embraced us, and we have this wonderful art studio that we can work in. The studio engages our community in art and restoration projects that are so fulfilling for them. Not only are they working creatively on something, they can see the difference it makes.
How does the art studio engage the community in working with Dwell With Dignity? New Life Hardwoods is a donor of ours, and they have a building in the Design District and they donate 1500 square feet of studio space to Dwell With Dignity. Every Wednesday night and on Saturdays, we are open to the public for the community to help us create art and restore furniture. Kim Turner and I do much of the design work, but we also invite interior designers to work on projects.
The designer is the one who oftentimes comes up with the project or art ideas, but we also have a project manager that comes up with lots of ideas. Volunteers and artists also come in with ideas, and artists sometimes want to be commissioned to do a project for the home. There's so many ways that we get the community involved to create art for the project. For most people, the things that you value in your home the most are pieces of art or furniture or things that have had people's hands on them. They're created by people. We strive to make sure that each one of our projects have a lot of that in it. You walk in and feel how authentic these homes are.
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