by Stacy Chandler
photographs by Carla Williams
Before a group of Wake County remodelers came to the rescue last fall, the headquarters of the Wake Interfaith Hospitality Network, which helps people out of homelessness, was worn out. Its carpet was worn and smelly. Sixteen years of intense wear and tear and jerry-rigged repairs had taken their toll. The fact that the agency didn’t even have its name displayed in the lobby was the least of its concerns.
Today, the building has new flooring, fresh paint, newly outfitted rooms, glass-paneled doors, built-in seating to welcome visitors – and a professionally lettered sign. That’s just the beginning.
“For families coming in now, it’s just a really nice place to be – which is what we all want at the end of the day,” says Lisa Williams, the group’s executive director.
When members of the Remodelers Council of the Home Builders Association of Raleigh-Wake County toured the building on Method Road in Raleigh last year, they were moved by the group’s mission and by the amount of care they could tell staffers took in maintaining the building as best they could.
“We scheduled a visit, we came in to meet Lisa one day, and we knew from that day forward we were done. It was on,” says Louise Davis, who served as the Remodelers Council’s community service chair last year. “We knew this was a home run.”
The group brought in donated supplies and workers and expertise from as many as 40 different companies to transform the building that the network has occupied since 1998. After all that time helping families transition from homelessness to housing with services like laundry, showers, job searches and life-skills classes, the building needed help.
“We’d kind of patched, patched, patched all along, because there was always a greater need for money in another area,” says Williams. Most of the nonprofit’s funding goes toward its programs, which promote permanent housing and self-sufficiency.
The carpet that covered most of the floors of the 7,000-square-foot building was worn from foot traffic, and it was smelly from several sewage floods in the basement. The building’s past as a 7-Eleven headquarters, then offices for N.C. State, and then an insurance agency gave it an industrial feel that didn’t impart much in the way of a warm welcome.
And then there was the beating a building takes over the years just from being used heavily.
“Just a few years of a family living in a home causes wear and tear,” Williams says. “We have typically eight to 10 families here, up to 40 people at one time, since 1998. So the wear and tear was quite tremendous.”
Volunteers from the Remodelers Council spent one busy week last November putting in new flooring, painting the walls a warm yellow, upgrading lighting, and revamping the playroom and classroom. They added a teen room, upgraded the playground and replaced the large lockers families use to store their belongings during the day.
During the project, “It was people coming and going all day, every day,” Williams said. The group moved most of its operations to an apartment building it owns next door for the week, but Davis and other people working on the building did get to meet a few clients as they worked and were gratified to see their reaction to the unfolding upgrades.
“I think the overriding emotion was the clients were happy for Lisa,” Davis said. “They wanted Lisa to have this. They truly love the staff here just as much as they love what they’re doing for them. It’s a mutual respect between clients and staff here.”
The week of hard work was also a bonding experience for the contractors who pitched in, Davis said: “It was fun. That’s where the community spirit comes in to community service.”
When it was over, the building was transformed into a place that feels like home. Warm wood flooring and cheery décor have chased away that institutional feel, and better lighting and built-in shelving have improved the functionality and safety of the space.
Williams is most fond of the upgraded classroom, which now has Apple TV to help presenters from the hospitality network and local colleges enhance their lessons. She also loves the lobby: “To me it feels like home now because our name is on the wall,” she said. “In 15 years, we have never had our name on the wall.”
By the nature of the mission, most network clients aren’t repeat customers. So these days there are fewer and fewer people walking in the doors who get the full effect of the before and after. Still, “we see a difference in the upkeep of the building,” Williams says. “The families take better care of the building now because it’s in better shape.”
The Remodelers Council’s project wrapped up at the end of that week, but that doesn’t mean the relationship is over.
“I think as staff, every day we all still think of it when we walk through the door,” Williams said. “There isn’t a morning that I come in that I don’t think about it, and that’s the truth. I never thought that I would ever see this building look this way. It’s touched all of us.”