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CMU students give local homeless shelter a family-friendly makeover.

Shelter gets student makeover

CMU honors students create a welcoming environment for local homeless families 

Contact: Ari Harris

​It doesn't take a professional designer to make a house a home, but having someone with those skills certainly doesn't hurt.

When a team of CMU students enrolled in a special honors course called Academic Service-Learning for the Greater Good took on a project to revamp the Isabella County Restoration House, most had no prior experience with interior design.

"Our goal was to show the students that people with every major — every interest — have something to contribute to solving a problem when they work together," said Jeanneane Wood-Nartker, a member of the faculty in CMU's interior design program and academic leader for the class.

The honors students spent several weeks researching the kinds of issues that present challenges for homeless individuals and families. They compiled a "big ideas" list that linked issues of homelessness to evidence-based design principles.

Pam Sarigiani, a faculty member from CMU's family studies program, spoke with the class about the impact of homelessness on families. They did Skype interviews with a shelter director in Cleveland, Ohio, and toured CMU's Child Development and Learning Laboratory to gain additional background information.

They made several visits to the shelter and met with Isabella County Restoration House executive director and CMU alum Ryan Griffus to learn about how clients arrived, accessed services and used the facility.

And then they began to dream, draw and plan.

Student teaching students

The only student with interior design experience on the team was senior Julia Nieman. She was able to enroll in the class as a teaching assistant.

"I have always had a passion for teaching, and it was cool to have the chance to dip my toe into this world. Knowing that I can share what I have learned with others helped to cement that I'm on the right path in my field," Nieman said.


Students present their design concepts at the ICRH board meeting.

As the students made big plans for revamping the space, she helped them turn their ideas into reality. She helped teach key concepts, assisted with presentations for the shelter's board of directors, and did most of the 3-D modeling and renderings for design plans.

Along the way, she learned a few new things, as well.

"We had a conversation with the director of a large shelter in Ohio and discussed things that hadn't occurred to me before. We talked about the need for materials to be easy to clean and durable in a way that common household furniture usually is not typically made. We needed to keep the environment comfortable and aesthetically pleasing, but also hygienic."

Working with Griffus helped her identify local needs, such as furniture that would not be susceptible to bedbugs and tables with sturdy legs.

Personal connection to the mission

From the time he was 12, Griffus was homeless. College wasn't even on his radar when he reached his senior year of high school.

"Many people don't understand that when you are living without a home, the stress of finding clothing, food and shelter is all-encompassing. I wasn't thinking about the future, I was focused on what was happening in my family," he said.

An assistant football coach made him sit down and apply for a CMU football scholarship. At 18, Griffus found his first real sense of home and security in a residence hall.

He balanced athletics and his studies in child development until graduation in 2004. Now, he's working to make sure "not another kid has to experience what I did."

Working with his alma mater gave Griffus a chance to engage fresh perspectives and new energy into the shelter.

"We had this wonderful new space and weren't sure how to use it most effectively. The students came in exploding with possibilities and a willingness to try new things," he said.

He was excited to see the plans students made to revamp the storage and locker room areas, new spaces for children, and a new layout for administrative functions.


The CMU team paints objects for a colorful new mural in the children's area.

Once the plans were approved, students wrote grants and solicited several companies to request material support for the projects. They received more than $20,000 in monetary and in-kind contributions, Wood-Nartker said.

Together with community volunteers, the students constructed walls, hung drywall, installed laminate floors, installed cabinets and created a colorful children's area mural.

Diverse perspectives yield great design

Jackson Graham, a junior studying English and creative writing, had volunteered at the shelter once before with his church. He was excited to be a part of something long-lasting that would really help people.

"I didn't know anything about design coming into this project, but that didn't mean I couldn't help. We researched the emotional effects of design and how environment impacts homelessness. We talked to other shelters and looked for ways we could make a difference. The things we are creating here will last and help people for years to come."

Graham said the variety of academic disciplines was a major benefit to the project.

"We all came to this project with different perspectives and skill sets. When we had a problem, we'd talk it out. I approached things from one angle, and someone else had a different view. It made our final solutions so much better."

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