Thanksgiving is a time for appreciating what we have and for helping those less fortunate.
Designers get that message, too.
While decorating might seem a luxury and only for people of means, good design can make a huge difference in how people live and work. That's a core belief of designers, and why many contribute their time, talent and energy to nonprofits and churches.
Neon Youth Services provides housing for young people aged 16 to 21 in what was once a Chicago funeral home. Mary Lou Kalmus of Designing Edge in Clarendon Hills and Mary Dluzen of Burr Ridge were among the designers who helped transform this space under the auspices of Designs for Dignity, a major force in harnessing volunteer designer hours.
"A large expanse of window in the dining room area was boarded over, and there was ugly old paneling," said Kalmus. "Natural light alone makes a better environment. Kids who lived on the streets or from broken homes don't need to move into another dump."
The young residents were consulted to collaborate on colors, and they got to pick from a few choices of bedding at Target, said Jennifer Sobecki, executive director of Designs for Dignity, an organization in its 10th year of coordinating designers who want to contribute their time to help others.
The dining room furniture at Neon Youth Services is a donated conference table and chairs, and other furniture was reupholstered, said Kalmus. Designers can "shop" through warehouses of donated items thanks to Elite Designer Services in Arlington Heights and R & R Designer Delivery in Wheeling.
This brings up some principles that designers work under furniture in not-for-profits needs to be sturdy so it holds up to the extra use, and it's critical that features like lighting and kitchen layouts are well planned.
The artwork is important and adds a lot toward making an area homey, said Kalmus.
"It went from literally a funeral parlor to something that looks like it's from Pottery Barn or Restoration hardware," said Sobecki. "More like a home than a dorm. Youngsters who live there a couple of years begin to respect their environment."
Designers worked on the kitchen, too, and the cabinets were donated.
Designers work with the nonprofit's architect, contractors and volunteers to get the projects done. Designs for Dignity also sponsors days of service where people in the industry who can't take on a whole building can work for a day.
"Everybody wants to get involved and give back," said Sobecki. "Of course we want to give the most impact."
Designs for Dignity, founded by Susan Fredman, whose Chicago firm bears her name, has undertaken more than 100 projects with hundreds of designers.
The group's accomplishments range from food pantries to health care, child care, job programs, art organizations and hospice to centers helping all kinds of people from those who have experienced sexual abuse to homelessness and victims of domestic violence.
Projects in the suburbs have included Zacharias Sexual Abuse Center in Gurnee, Design for Dignity's first enterprise, and the Wings Shelter in Rolling Meadows. A new project is the Lake Forest Equestrian Connection, which uses horses to help people with disabilities.
Recycling usable materials to keep them out of landfills is an important part of the group's mission.
"There's so much excess in the industry," said Sobecki. "There might be things a designer ordered, and the client doesn't like or the finish or upholstery is wrong."
Designers find other ways to be of service. A friend introduced Joan Kaufman of Interior Planning & Design, Inc., in Naperville to Metro Achievement Center, a tutoring center in Chicago.
Kaufman helped with space planning and ways to arrange the rooms. She recommended folding tables that connect to each other so the rooms could be used for different functions.
"I helped select the tables so they would be more durable and multifunctional, work well and be comfortable and last a long time. They don't have a huge budget. It needs to be tasteful, last a long time and look professional," said Kaufman.
"The parents and students need to have confidence, and the students have to be motivated to be there, and the environment is important to the success of the students and to the teachers who donate them to help."
And sometimes the need for help is closer to home.
A just-finished kitchen is very important to St. Lawrence Episcopal Church in downtown Libertyville.
The church expansion in 2003-04 included a new sanctuary and parish hall, but the congregation did not have enough money to finish the new kitchen.
Without a commercial kitchen, the annual Shrove Tuesday pancake dinner right before Lent, traditional for Episcopal churches, had to be abandoned.
But earlier this year the impetus came when Village Green Montessori School, which operates in the church, offered to help with the cost of turning the old kitchen into a classroom so it could expand.
This galvanized the parish including four members from Designs in Context to action.
Betsy Swank, Pam Rawles and two of their employees, Julia Karnstedt and Liz Halbert, provided design services for the new kitchen and the classroom. Karnstedt has a leadership role in the church and served almost as project manager.
Other parishioners contributed money and helped arrange donated materials and discounts.
Besides helping with community building inside the congregation, the new kitchen could provide many opportunities to reach out to the community, says the Rev. Patricia Snickenberger, rector of St. Lawrence.
"We have a small food pantry, but perhaps we could develop a cafe with meals for the community. Those who can afford to pay, fine, and those who can't could come, too.
"r we could have educational opportunities. How can we learn to be better stewards of our environment and better stewards of our bodies?"