Imagine a young boy of seven who just came home from school. He walks into his room, drops his backpack on the dusty, concrete floor, and sits on his bed—two mattresses stacked on top of each other. With just the cold afternoon light peeking through the window, he opens his math book to do his homework. In such an environment as this, does this little boy believe that he can aspire for great things when he grows up? For Lisa Robison, it takes more than just a room to make a person feel secure and capable of anything in this world. So, with the nest egg given to her on her birthday, she founded Dwell with Dignity.
Dwell with Dignity is a non-profit organization driven by one beautiful mission: to use interior design to bring hope and happiness to families struggling with poverty and homelessness. It sprung from a concept that to this day has been the driving force of Lisa’s work.
“People who get the least access to good design can benefit the most from it.”
By teaming up with agencies in various communities, Lisa, Kim Turner (vice president), and her team of more than fifty volunteers visit these families to breathe life into their homes through beautiful furniture and art. It’s giving them a comfortable place to call home and a second chance in life.
When we sat down with Lisa to talk about Dwell with Dignity, we were amazed at how the desire to help others through design has embraced all who are involved in the project. From the families they help to the donors and volunteers, everyone is accounted for. For Lisa, this is the source of their growth and the energy that keeps them going.
“The challenge was to invite lots of people to help,” Lisa shares, recalling the advice she received when she first moved into her new office in Dallas. “It is just as important that I invite people to help us do what we were doing and nurture those environments—that is just as important as it is to help the people we help. So, the reason for our growth has to do with the overwhelming amount of people who wanted to help us do what we were doing. And that includes designers, people who wanted to donate stuff, and people who just want to get their hands dirty and make their efforts count towards changing someone’s life.”
It’s inspiring to see how they’ve managed to overcome these challenges. This year, Lisa and her team have completed a total of fourteen projects, with the goal of completing eighteen by 2014.
Dwell with Dignity partners with agencies that already have programs that help families get out of homelessness and become self-sufficient. Ultimately, their role is to give these people the resources they need as their first stepping stone to a brighter future.
“We address a critical economical need for these families because when they graduate a program, they may have been in a transitional apartment for a year with an agency (for instance, in Dallas). They’ve acquired all of this knowledge, they got a good job, they know how to take care of their kids, and they’re ready to move out. But they don’t have the funds or the resources to provide, to go out and buy a house full of furniture, and to make that a home.”
We can only imagine how difficult this is, and that’s where Dwell with Dignity steps in to bring that ray of hope. For sure, tears of joy and gratitude were shed, but what made our hearts soar was how Lisa returned their gratitude with sincerity, encouragement and inspiration.
“The moms will thank us, or the kids will thank us, and I tell these children, ‘It’s really your mother who made this happen. Your mother provided this for you because she made all the right decisions.’ And I tell the mom, ‘You made a really difficult decision in going to this agency to seek help, and we have confidence in you, or we wouldn’t give you this gift.’”
As designers by heart and trade, we asked Lisa how design affects her. We love the insight she brings to the table by going beyond the abstract. She illustrates how design can shape our environments and attitudes.
“I think as designers, and even non-designers, we have the ability to shape our environments, and that can shape our attitudes. When we create a space for a little boy where he has a desk to do his homework, and his bed has comfy sheets, blankets, and a comforter, he feels nurtured in that space, and he has confidence. Setting this standard of living for future generations, I think that what we do has a possibility to end this cycle of poverty for that family.”
That’s a future to aspire for, all right.
The work and dedication the people behind Dwell with Dignity have done is breathtaking, staggering even. Besides their bi-annual pop-up bazaar with Thrift Studio, they’re currently prepping up for a satellite project at Atlanta in conjunction with the Design Bloggers Conference, and are working to open new chapters around the country.
While she admits that the work does take its toll on her, Lisa assures us that the happiness that comes with giving is enough to wash the heaviness away.
“Sometimes, it is an overwhelming responsibility, but at the end of the day, when you are walking a family through their new home for the very first time, and you can experience the joy and the amazement that they have in their hearts that all of these people have come together—who don’t know them, who have confidence in them—that they’re going to pick up and be self-sufficient and lead happy lives, that makes it all worthwhile.”