‘Powered by the community’: La Jolla volunteers help make empty house a home for recently homeless family
To help a family settle into a new residence after being homeless, several volunteers from La Jolla Cosmetic Surgery Centre & Medical Spa and La Jolla-based philanthropy group Las Patronas participated in a “Day of Service” for local organization Humble Design.
Humble Design is a nonprofit interior design company run by La Jollans Rob and Treger Strasberg that serves “families, veterans and individuals leaving homelessness,” according to city director Laura Lavoie.
During the Day of Service on Feb. 11, two volunteers from La Jolla Cosmetic Surgery Centre and five from Las Patronas helped six Humble Design team members set up an empty home in Lakeside for a woman in her 40s and her son, 14, who recently emerged from homelessness through the East County Transitional Living Center.
The group spent the day furnishing and decorating the home before its reveal at the end of the day.
Marie Olesen, founder of La Jolla Cosmetic Surgery Centre, has volunteered for years with Humble Design and has been one of its board members since 2021. She said “there are people graduating from homelessness every week [who] are recommended from different agencies for consideration of participation in this program.”
Humble Design then works with a recipient to determine the home’s colors and style. “As somebody who’s been living in a car or living on the streets, to be given that level of consideration and that amount of control is very powerful,” Olesen said.
Furnishings are selected and loaded onto a truck and delivered to the home. During a Day of Service, volunteers place the items according to the designers’ plan, Olesen said, though the designers give the volunteers some flexibility to decorate as they wish.
“Everybody is all hands on deck, unloading the truck, bringing boxes to the right rooms, unpacking and washing dishes, setting the table, making the bed, hanging the art,” Lavoie said. “Every single thing that you need to do to take an empty house and turn it into a home in one day.”
Humble Design is “powered by the community, both philosophically and in volunteerism,” Lavoie said.
Olesen said participating is “humbling. … As a volunteer, you realize how much we have in our own lives. It gives you perspective.”
Ingrid de Alba de Salazar, a Las Patronas member, agreed. “We sometimes take for granted having a bed, having a seat, having a plate,” she said.
“It was very impactful for [Las Patronas volunteers] to see ... how well everything is planned,” said de Alba de Salazar, whose husband is a surgeon at La Jolla Cosmetic. Creating a home for the family was “very rewarding” and the reveal at the end was “overwhelming,” she added.
Las Patronas, which provides financial assistance to local nonprofits and last year raised more than $1 million, visits organizations receiving Las Patronas support, but members rarely get to meet the people who benefit directly from their largesse, de Alba de Salazar said. “We never get to see the actual emotional feeling of that happening.”
Lavoie said that’s part of what makes Humble Design “such a magical organization. I’ve never been connected with an organization where the volunteer experience is so immediately next to the mission. [Every week], I go to bed knowing that my team and my volunteers have actively changed somebody’s life for good.”
Many of the volunteers are parents, which made creating a home for the mother and her teen “really beautiful,” Lavoie said. “Every single person mentioned the relationship between this 14-year-old boy and his mother and how this is going to be the difference in his life forever.”
Humble Design is “not yet” a Las Patronas beneficiary, Lavoie said, as it just cleared the philanthropy group’s requirements to apply.
“I just wish we had more people to keep volunteering and more furniture to give out,” de Alba de Salazar said. “It’s so powerful and it makes them so happy.” ◆
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