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Humble Design turns houses into dream homes for homeless families; U-Haul to help expand program

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Humble Design is just that – humble. You won’t hear them tooting their horn about number of families coming out of homeless and abuse shelters they’ve helped have a home, not just house, or that they have made it possible for those families to smile again and rebuild their lives.

The Pontiac-based organization does it all by repurposing donated gently used household goods that teams of designers use to furnish and decorate the house to make it as close to the dream home the family has always wanted as possible.

Humble Design works with seven to eight homeless shelters. The shelters give them the names of those who have received approval for housing and the address of the new home as well as the number of people in the family and their back story. Humble Design takes it from there. The homes are rented by the families or they qualify for housing vouchers from the government.

Focus is placed on selecting single parents with children and veteran families. Last year the organization gave 143 families homes, not just houses. The goal this year is 150. Since Humble Design was founded in 2009 it has helped 665 families.

The number is now going to grow substantially thanks to U-Haul, which wants to expand the program in metro Detroit and take the program into other major cities, says Bill Rains, U-Haul area district vice president for the Detroit area. U-Haul restored the 90-plus-year-old, seven-story National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) building in New Center and opened a full-service moving and storage center about three years ago.

The 30,000 square-foot fifth floor is not being used and will soon be a warehouse for Humble Design, he says. “We want to be involved and be part of helping Detroit and its people.”

U-Haul also donated a truck.

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“Before U-Haul we had one sad little truck,” says Julie Nagle, Humble Design director. “We were putting more money into it than gas.”

She says the link to U-Haul came from Cynthia Ford, who visited Humble Design to see the warehouse, which is packed full of furniture, toys, artwork, games, dishes, linens, books for all ages and so much more … everything you need to make a house a home. She saw the old truck they were using to haul furniture and other items to the houses and contacted U-Haul and asked them to donate a truck.

But there is more to the story than a truck and warehousing space.

U-Haul also provided financial assistance as well as a nationwide infrastructure that will enable Humble Design’s work to reach more cities. It also is making a pledge to match every dollar donated to Humble Design — up to $50,000.

“The expertise, resources, national reach and community commitment of U-Haul make it a tremendous partner for Humble Design to take our mission nationwide to alleviate homelessness,” says Treger Strasberg, co-founder of the group now known as Humble Design Fueled by U-Haul. “Working together, U-Haul and Humble Design will engage communities to serve families in need by turning houses into homes across the country.”

Earlier this month Morgan Radford of NBC’s Today visited Detroit to profile the work Humble Design Fueled by U-Haul is doing. The story is scheduled to air nationally at 9 a.m. ET Sunday, Aug. 28.

The need is great. Families have very little and most families “leave the shelter with one or two garbage bags (with all their possessions),” Nagle says.

Makeover begins

To begin the process of making over a home, the Humble Design team meets with the family the first of the week to find out what their dream house would be.

How would the kids like their bedrooms decorated? Princesses. Superheroes. Space ships. What stuffed animals would they like?

What should mom’s bedroom look like? What kind of kitchen? What kind of artwork? What kind of furniture? What kind of lamps? What kind of dishes?

“All that makes a house a home,” Nagle says, pointing out each kid has his or her own bed.

Once the Humble Design team has that information they ask the family to leave and come back later in the week to see the extreme makeover. It can be extreme for some families.

Sometimes the table design is so pretty the mom will tell the kids they can’t eat there. To solve the problem Humble Design will suggest taking a picture of the table so they can remember it and then use the table and the settings every day.

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Humble Design works with up to three families a week. It has three teams, each made up of two designers, who go to the house to turn into a home with the help of many volunteers.They hang curtains and artwork, beautifully set the dining table, place furniture, make beds, clean and much more. Here are some before and after pictures.

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Yes, they also use their God-given skills as well.

In one case a woman told the team she had always wanted a Betty Boop bedroom. The team went to work and decorated it with black, pink and zebra prints and one designer painted pictures of Betty that now hang on the wall.

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Another mom was a Navy veteran who loved anchors. Anchors now decorate her home.

Some wishes are granted simply by miracles. One young woman who was nine months pregnant dreamed of a light blue baby bed. Humble Design had no such bed, but when the truck came back from picking up donations that day there it was – a light blue baby bed.

The teams also look for the small things that make huge difference. Reading lamps are often attached to kids’ beds so they can study there and sometimes finding a new friend makes all the difference.

One seven-year-old loved sea turtles. Nagle hunted and hunted and finally found one for $4 in a shop. The little boy was thrilled. Now with his reading light and his new friend he says, “Now I can learn.”

That confidence helps cement families.

“If kids can dream again, if they can feel safe – safe and happy – they can rally around the mom,” Nagle says.

“I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a mom say ‘now I know I can do this.’”

Few families end up back in the shelters after taking possession of a Humble Design home. Only one family went back in 2014 and in 2015.

Creating each home does take some dollars, even with donations. It takes $3,000 to move a family into a new home. Oftentimes, corporations will sponsor a family and the move and provide volunteers. Allstate, Barton Malow, Dobrusin Law Firm, Doner Advertising, DTE Energy,Fiat Chrysler, Ford Huron Capital, Mercedes Benz Financial and Volkswagen Credit are among those companies.

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Volunteers are willing to help in any way they can. One volunteer decided to help by mowing the lawn so he brought his riding lawnmower. As you can imagine, the lawn in one of these extreme makeover homes is not very big. No matter. He mowed that lawn and then knocked on a neighbor’s door and asked if he could mow that lawn as well. He ended up mowing lawns on the whole street.

Security checks

Oftentimes the families are escaping abusive relationships. In those cases no press and no pictures of the family or the homes are allowed. To further ensure their safety nothing is kept on a Humble Design computer. All addresses are hard copy and no names are used, just numbers that represent the family.

There is also a security team, comprised of former FBI and SWAT members among others, at each makeover. They study the neighborhood and arrive at the house before the makeover team.

Humble Design’s work doesn’t end when the family moves in. They keep coming back. At Halloween, one team brought pumpkins with the names of each child loving inscribed on the front. There are also Thanksgiving baskets and companies and individuals will adopt a family at Christmastime.

“With all the divisiveness in the world today (Humble Design’s work) restores your faith in humanity,” U-Haul’s Rains says.

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Rains and many volunteers helped make over the home featured on NBC Today show segment scheduled for Sunday, August. 28. He hung pictures, made beds – whatever was needed. “At U-Haul we want to be part of the community,” he says.

Here is how you can help.

Volunteer, donate items such as bedding, cleaning buckets, school supplies, furniture, bedroom kits (shower curtains, curtain rings, bath towels, garbage cans, toilet paper, plungers, and toilet brushes), children’s crafts, artwork – anything you think would make a house a home. You can even start a Kids Giving to Kids Program where kids pick something from their own bedrooms to donate.

Humble Design is located at 180 N. Saginaw in Pontiac. You can drop off items Monday-Friday from 9:00 am-4:00 pm. ​​You can also reach them at 248-243-7144 or by email at info@humbledesign.

– Photos courtesy of Humble Design

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