PHOTO BY LANCE SELGO, UNIQUE EXPOSURE PHOTOGRAPHY
When families fall into homelessness and poverty, everything descends into chaos – especially the children’s lives.
There may not be a table to gather around for family dinners. Nowhere to invite a friend to play. No academic continuity as the kids bounce from apartment to shelter, school to school. They can’t even count on the comforting routine of being tucked into their own safe, warm beds every night.
While agencies exist to bring families out of homelessness and into apartments and jobs, many walk into their new housing for the first time with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Interior designer Lisa Robison decided that children – and their parents – deserved much more.
Passion plus compassion
A Chicago native, Lisa moved to Dallas after earning a business degree, backpacking Europe, then finding true love with a Texan. The daughter of an artist and a businessman, she constantly redecorated her room as child and always had a knack for creating beautifully appointed rooms as an adult. After a few years in the workplace, she yearned to develop her natural eye for color, pattern, and balance, so she decided to pursue an interior design degree at El Centro College.
She was working at her first dream design job with Dallas’ renowned Paul Draper when her first child was born. After juggling a demanding workload, a new daughter at home, and husband building a business, she took a career hiatus to reprioritize her life and focus on her family.
When her second child, a son, entered kindergarten 10 years later, she was ready to return to the career she loved. But this time, she wanted to do things differently.
“I had picked up a book by Oprah Winfrey, called What I Know For Sure,” she recalls. “In it, she says the secret to happiness is finding what you are passionate about and talented at – what makes your heart beat fast – and figuring out how to give that back to your community. That got me thinking about design and how it makes such a huge impact on quality of life.”
She realized that families emerging from homelessness and poverty deserve a harmonious retreat to come home to at the end of the day. Their children deserve stability and a space to call their own, possibly for the first time in their lives.
The kids don’t have birthday parties or invite anyone over. It’s really not a thriving environment for a family.
“Think about a family who has gone through an agency program and is out on their own for the first time,” she says. “They have their first and last months’ rent – enough to pay for their kids’ clothes and some food, but not enough to provide a real home. They might have a mattress and sometimes a couple of pieces of furniture or a TV. That’s it. There’s no place for kids to do their homework. They can’t get a good night’s sleep. The kids don’t have birthday parties or invite anyone over. It’s really not a thriving environment for a family.”
Lisa realized that transforming these empty spaces could completely change how these families interact with each other and their communities. So in 2009, when her husband asked what she wanted for her birthday, she asked for a nest egg to start a non-profit and bring great design to families who needed that boost the most. With it, she started Dwell with Dignity to create soothing, inspiring homes for families struggling with homelessness and poverty.
Lisa quickly found that everyone she spoke to wanted to get involved – including friend and fellow El Centro alum Kim Turner. Together, they enlisted so much support from their community of designers, showrooms, and manufacturers, they needed a warehouse, full-time staff of eight, and an army of volunteers to manage it all.
More than 75 projects later, Dwell with Dignity designs, sources, and installs a beautiful interior for a new family about once a month, and upgrades the interiors of other non-profit organizations twice a year. DwD has been so successful, it’s now expanding into other “design hub” cities, starting with Atlanta. In addition to donations, the effort is funded by DwD’s bi-annual “Thrift Studio” sale featuring designer-curated donations of high-end furniture, housewares, and accessories.
From drawing board to big reveal
Families are nominated by agencies working to take them from homelessness to self-sufficiency. Dwell with Dignity’s designers and volunteers take measurements, create furniture plans, renovate donated furnishings, purchase new items as needed, and create original art. No element is overlooked, with the team creating a perfect mix of decor, linens, dishes and kitchen supplies, a stocked pantry, and even the first night’s dinner.
When families step into their newly redecorated homes for the first time, tears often flow, and the kids immediately begin planning their first playdate.
Every design decision is informed by the family members’ personalities, from the kids’ favorite sports or princess obsessions to the parents’ favorite colors and treasured family heirlooms.
“It’s often hard to get out of the mothers what they like and aspire to because they just feel so fortunate to have been chosen in the first place,” Lisa says. “But so often, they will say, ‘How did you know that’s my favorite color? How did you know I prayed for this?’ We end up intuitively doing the right thing.”
PHOTOS: LANCE SELGO, UNIQUE EXPOSURE PHOTOGRAPHY
When families step into their newly redecorated homes for the first time, tears often flow, and the kids immediately begin planning their first playdate. “Suddenly, the children are not in fight or flight mode anymore,” Lisa says. “They feel safe. They have a bed and can get a good night’s sleep. They get the stability that promotes better academic outcomes. The chaos is taken out of their environment.”
One of Lisa’s goals is to break the cycle of poverty by giving kids a new standard of living to aspire to. One child even made up his mind that he would one day give back by building houses for the homeless.
“That’s what he decided to take in, instead of the scariness and stressfulness of his life,” Lisa marvels. “To inspire a child to want to give, when they don’t have anything – that’s crazy good.”
And it’s not just the kids who are inspired to dream big. Lisa and her team frequently hear from parents who pledge to work hard, pay it forward, and never fall back into the lives they lived before.
“To have a home to come back to and recharge their batteries enables them to succeed in their careers,” she says. “They sleep better and have restful time at home with their kids. They start having family dinners, and communication improves. Their toxic stress levels go down, their confidence goes up, and they start making the right choices. Instead of constantly trying to get out of the hole, they can use the skills they have learned to start living their lives right now.”
Lisa’s own kids, now 18 and 12, have grown up with DwD, and she hopes they too will find their passions and ways to give back.
“If everyone used their gifts to do something they are passionate about, everything would be taken care of,” she says. “You don’t get how good it feels until you actually experience it. It’s addictive.”