When River Forest resident Steve Lefko retired from the corporate world to be a stay-at-home dad for his two daughters eight years ago, it didn’t take him long to come up with a way to fill his spare time. 

An avid woodworker, he created a dollhouse for his own kids. When his wife Kim came home from a work event with a gift request during the holidays for a child in need, he built another to donate. 

Before he knew it, he was building more than 50 dollhouses a year in his garage workshop. Inspired by the first house he donated, he decided that for each house he sold to a paying customer, he would donate another to a local charitable organization, such as Hephzibah or Marillac St. Vincent Family Services.

Lefko notes that his background taught him the importance of creative play.

 “I’m a scientist, and science shows us that creativity and healthy play are good for developing brains,” he said.

Lefko wanted his houses to help the kids who received them in more ways than one. 

“I always wanted a family, and I’m fortunate enough to have my own,” he said. “Data shows that kids who don’t know family are at the greatest risk.”

For him, giving the dollhouses to kids without families of their own was more than just offering them a toy. It was a way to allow them to imagine the kind of future they wanted to have one day. Lefko thought there must be some way to imbue his houses with the importance of home and family.

As luck would have it, he met a fellow parent, Lurana Brown, on the school playground who shared his vision about creative play, and who worked with him to create a storybook to accompany each house.

“I loved the thought of doing something not just for the sake of giving the kids something but to give them a stage to imagine a better life,” Brown said. “The storybooks help do that. They are more a tool for imagination than a gift.”

The two called the business Hope Houses.

 “Hope is the belief that you can realize what you imagine,” Lefko said. “When you’re working with an organization like Hephzibah, these kids can’t imagine what a life is like surrounded by family.”

They incorporated two years ago, recently opened a workshop at 6311 Roosevelt Road in Berwyn and are quietly bringing some magic to scores of children throughout the local community.

The first and most traditional house model is called the Merry House. The Victorian style home, like all of the Hope Houses, comes with what Lefko calls the brand’s “q:” a keyhole window in the house which lines up with a piece of artwork on the interior wall with an inspiring message. 

Two other houses, Climb, which is shaped alike a tree house, and Joy, a smaller home, were influenced by feedback from the local charities. 

These models have backs that close so they are easily transportable – a boon for children who might move a lot; and they have a special slot to hold the accompanying storybook, so that the books stay with the house. 

While some assume that a dollhouse only appeals to girls, the tree house, with its pirate look-out and trap door is meant to provide creative play options to all genders.

Lefko and Brown realized that there was room in the market place for more affordable options, and this holiday season, they are rolling out an entrepreneurial village. 

The small stores include a bakery, pet shop and hardware store. Each store will come with its own story. 

 “All are first-person stories about a typical day in the life of the store owner,” Brown said. “We purposefully don’t give the main characters a gender so that kids can read them and feel like they are the owner. We end each book with open-ended journal questions to motivate the kids to think about what their dreams are.”

At the lower end of the scale, Hope Houses is also rolling out four wooden toys this year. For every toy purchased, one is donated to one of the local charitable agencies. 

Lefko notes that their workshop allows them to welcome in groups who want to help assemble the kits. Recently a group of Berwyn firefighters came in to assemble toy kits for the Pav YMCA.

Success stories

For Lefko and Brown the motivating factor is hearing how children in need play with their houses and are impacted by the gifts. Lefko recalls meeting one of the recipients of the houses at Marillac St. Vincent. 

“I showed her the Joy Lives Here book and read her the dedication,” he said. “I told her, ‘There’s a person who thought of you when she wrote this.’ Six months later I heard from one of the adults at Marillac that the little 9-year old girl couldn’t read yet, but she carried that book around every day and was determined to learn to read it.”

Each house donated to a partner agency comes complete with a family and furniture. Lefko and Brown say that at Hephzibah the children enjoy making the peg dolls look like themselves and decorating the houses with markers and crafts.

To aid in the decorating process, the Hope House website includes a blog called the Key Holder’s Club, and each house comes with an introductory brochure to the club. The blog is meant to spark the creative process in the new homeowners and includes tips and instructions for upcycling items to decorate the houses with. 

Recent projects include painting the plastic shell from a gumball machine prize to create a grill, or creating a pet turtle from pistachio shells.

“The whole idea is giving parents and kids the tools to fuel their imaginations,” Lefko said.

The pair also realize that being able to give is a gift in itself. Recently, teenagers from Berwyn’s Youth Crossroads came to the workshop to build houses. The teens then delivered the houses to Marillac and worked with the kids there to create an upcycled project for their new houses. Lefko stresses that this kind of connection is incredibly beneficial to both sides.

All Hope Houses homes are made in Lefko’s workshop by hand and painted with milk paint. Houses are delivered fully constructed, and while all purchases are shipped, Lefko delivers the homes to partner agencies himself. 

Online purchases can be made through www.hopehousesworkshop.com. Each purchase guarantees a donated house to a partner agency, and Lefko notes that people can also visit the website to donate a house without making a purchase.

For Lefko and Brown, it is a passion project that they hope to see grow. 

“We don’t ask anything from our partner agencies other than anecdotes and feedback about how the kids like their houses,” Lefko said. “We’re not doing this to become millionaires. The kids are the ‘why’ behind the entire operation.”

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