A fresh coat of comfort

This article appeared in today’s Star-Ledger

A fresh coat of comfort

Business teams’ makeover turns Newark shelter from a ‘mess’ to a haven

Monday, February 12, 2007

BY BARRY CARTER, Star-Ledger Staff

Inside the third-floor room of a Newark shelter he shares with his mother and three sisters, Devonta Wylie and the family crammed their belongings into a tiny storage area, then tried to get some sleep in bunk beds lined up against the wall.

“It was a mess,” Devonta said. There wasn’t much room to do anything, leaving him without a space for himself until yesterday.

The 14-year-old Newark teen finally had some place to call his own after Newark’s version of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” swept through the Apostles’ House over the weekend.

A massive collaboration of local businesses and corporate partners teamed up to redecorate the shelter for women and children into a cozy nine-bedroom home.

In Wylie’s room, the bunk beds are gone. Fresh paint is on the walls with pictures. The beds are lined side by side, covered with paisley comforters and matching pillow shams with shades of lavender in the print.

The small area that stored the family’s clothes is now a place for Devonta to huddle. Decorators turned that space into a bedroom painted blue with Giants football banners and pictures of players, including running back Tiki Barber and quarterback Eli Manning.

Devonta didn’t have much to say, but his wide grin said it all. His mother, Sharonda Wylie, just kept saying, “Oh my God, Oh My God.”

She knew it would be different, but not like this.

“I’m feeling like I’m at home,” Wylie said. “This is just supposed to be a stepping-stone.”

The makeover was more than what she and her family expected. Even a room mirror, something many people take for granted, was noticeably a big deal.

“We don’t have to go in the bathroom to put our makeup on,” said Kyerra, who is Wylie’s 18-year-old daughter.

The makeover idea was the brainchild of Trenk DiPasquale & Webster, a West Orange law firm that previously had Newark Mayor Cory Booker as a member.

The firm, which often does community service projects in the city, wanted to do something on a larger scale, said Meaghan Tuohey-Kay, one of the firm’s attorneys who dreamed up the concept. She then contacted Newark Now, a nonprofit organization started by Booker, that helps community groups improve its neighborhoods.

Modia Butler, executive director of Newark Now, identified the Apostles’ House as an ideal place that needed work.

The three-story building on Grant Street, near Route 280, has a lot of traffic with as many as 32 residents. Normal wear and tear had taken its toll on the facility, which focuses on services, not amenities.

The refrigerator kept food too cold, and it froze just about everything, residents said.

One of two dinner tables had recently broken. The floor model television didn’t work and served as a prop for another TV on top. Wood chairs had raggedy pillow cushions in the living room. Office furniture was so old that the chairs wobbled, and staff would trip over computer wire.

Trenk & DiPasquale called on one of its clients, The Shauger Group, a West Orange general contractor, to help make the project happen. While the contractor did the prep work, local businesses each took a room to redesign with their own money.

Donald Shauger, company president, had no problem pitching in services when he learned about the Apostles’ House. Shauger, born in Newark, grew up on welfare and knows what the women and their children are going through.

“We’re just trying to give them a little quality of life,” he said.

The transformation began about 10 a.m. Friday with The Shauger Group working around the clock to complete renovations he estimates cost $60,000.

“We’re just blown away by what happened here over the last 48 hours,” Booker said. “The love speaks for itself … to change lives, to raise children, to achieve real success.”

While the work was being done, residents moved out to other shelters, including other facilities within the Apostles’ House complex. They were treated to dinner in the Ironbound and a Nets game at Continental Arena.

When they returned yesterday, the new space was hardly recognizable.

An old storage area was converted into a technology center with four new computers. The floor model television was replaced with a plasma TV. The administrative office received new furniture while the kitchen/dining area has a new refrigerator and freezer stocked with food.

“I’ve never seen generosity like this,” said Sandy Accomando, chief executive officer of the Apostles’ House. “We have people donate all the time, but I never seen it to this extent.”

There were new contemporary-style cushions for the chairs. Asian figurines with scented candles sat on tables with a 60-gallon fish tank providing a soothing backdrop.

Residents were in awe, almost speechless, as they made their way through the house and to their space. Despite the fanfare, they remained realistic. They can’t take any of it with them when they leave, and many still face tough issues such as substance abuse and domestic violence.

But as residents work through their problems, they say having a comfortable living space will inspire them to get their lives together.

“I’ve been working so hard to get up out of here,” said La’Fay Bowman. “This is definitely a motivator.”

Barry Carter may be reached at bcarter@starledger.com or (973) 392-1827.
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