The Kowalczyks open up their home to help make a difference in the lives of children in Wake County
by Jesma Reynolds
interior photographs by Catherine Nguyen
event photographs by Jillian Clark
When Gretchen and Phil Kowalczyk moved in to their new raleigh home last fall, they knew its elegant, light-filled rooms would be wonderful to live in. When they donated furniture they no longer needed to The Green Chair Project, they realized the house could serve a larger purpose as well.
Conservative estimates indicate that on any given night in Wake County, 3,000 or more children don’t have a bed of their own to sleep in. Instead, they are relegated to crowded beds with other family members, or they sleep on hard floors or dirty carpets that can contribute to chronic diseases like asthma. The Kowalczyks learned about the problem at The Green Chair Project, and instead of filing the statistic away as a sad but true fact, they decided to do something about it.
“It’s a shocking number, but I can get my head around it,” says Phil, President and CEO of The Robert Allen Group, a national design and interiors company that specializes in fabrics and soft furnishings. He and Gretchen decided to raise money for a Green Chair program called Sweeter Dreams that supplies beds to kids who need them. Because the organization is unable legally to accept used mattresses as donations, it buys new ones. Case workers in local schools, eager to address the problem, help Green Chair find potential recipients. It’s not hard to imagine the downward spiral caused by lack of sleep. Frequent absences, health problems, learning difficulties, and behavioral issues all affect classroom performance.
Having lived in larger cities where the scale of social concerns can feel massive and overwhelming, the Kowalczyks decided to try to help address the problem here by thinking big and starting small. As they settled in to their new house, they embraced the notion that they could use it to help the community. Inspired by a neighborhood supper club they attended when living in Atlanta that mixed up small groups of people for food and fellowship, the Kowalczyks called on five couples to join them for a Sunday dinner in February in hopes of pooling funds to sponsor 20 beds. Phil says their goal was three-fold: to build community, create a special, intimate gathering, and, most importantly, “to get kids off the floor.” As Phil says: “local needs, local friends, local chef, and doing good in a fun and elegant way that inspires us to do more.” At $1,000 a couple, the Kowalczyks crossed their fingers that everyone would respond positively.
And respond they did – with a resounding yes. Then Phil reached out to Scott Crawford of Standard Foods to put together a multi-course dinner, and asked the Wine Authorities to come up with wine pairings. What the Kowalczyks didn’t know until later is that both the chef and wine purveyor would provide their services and goods gratis. When all was said and done, the evening netted $4,750, enough to fund 32 beds, surpassing their original goal of 20.
Those beds will make a real difference, says Jackie Craig, executive director of The Green Chair Project. The organization’s board of directors recently voted to expand the bed program to serve any child in need through its household furnishings program – not just through case workers in the schools. The cost per bed is $250, which includes a twin mattress, boxspring, bed frame, and a set of bedding.
From here and of here
The positive community spirit alive in Raleigh and so evident that evening took hold of the Kowalczyks after they moved here in 2008. Having lived previously in Atlanta, Boston, and New York, they quickly decided that Raleigh would become their permanent home. With a young son and a desire to find a great neighborhood with lots of kids, they looked for existing homes for sale with little luck. When they eventually found a less-than-desirable house in a desirable neighborhood, they turned to home builder Mark Kirby of Dixon/Kirby, who had been helping them with their search. “I knew them really well by the time we started designing the house,” Kirby says. They set out to create a traditional Georgian home, one that looked like it belonged, with a modern floorplan.
And they were decisive about what they wanted. For Gretchen, it was lots and lots of natural light and the colors of the sea, with accents of gold and silver. Phil worked intimately throughout the process with Kirby to get every detail right. “Phil has great spatial relationship,” Gretchen says. Kirby says they both offered good ideas. “Gretchen and Phil have a great eye. It was a lot of fun pulling together that house.” Phil’s eye for interiors was trained at an early age when he accompanied his interior designer mother to the Chicago merchanidise mart.
Even though Phil says that with his job at Robert Allen, “I have access to the world,” he “wanted this Raleigh home to be something from here and of here.” So the Kowalczyks deliberately “bought local” as much as possible. The Raleigh firm of Dixon/Kirby designed and built the house, Raleigh-based Furnishing Solutions designed interiors, and the Kowalczyks found materials and furniture from around North Carolina. Their only requirement was that all the fabrics came from Robert Allen. “I was the boss under cover,” Phil says with a laugh, recalling his turn as client, selecting and ordering fabrics, and waiting for delivery.
Now that the house is complete, and the couple’s hopes of using it for good realized, the Kowalczyks hope there will be many more such dinners to help build the program. Scott Crawford has already agreed to help connect other chefs to the cause.
For more on The Green Chair Project: thegreenchair.org