Julie Dickinson has a stack of photos showing off different rooms in various homes, all of which feature one common item – a twin bed, each one draped in colorful sheets, complete with a comforter and matching pillows. To some, the images might not mean much, but to Dickinson and her staff, who are on a mission to end homelessness in Chicago, the pictures spotlight their work and a recent partnership that helped them meet their end goal.
Dickinson is the director of the Chicago branch of Humble Design, a nonprofit with locations across the country that furnishes homes for families and veterans emerging from homelessness – and those twin beds in the photos are from Concordia University Chicago. In fact, they’re just some of the hundreds of pieces of furniture donated to Humble Design from university dorm Gross Hall, which was demolished in April. Humble Design staff and volunteers collected about 100 small dressers and dozens of desks, chairs and mattresses in late March before the 50-plus-year-old building was torn down.
“It’s nice when something happens like [this],” Dickinson said. “For a long time, we’re not having to think about dressers and where we’re going to find our next one.”
But Dickinson and Concordia spokesperson Eric Matanyi told Wednesday Journal that the real story goes beyond the donation and about how the two entities found each other in a time of need. And that all began with university employee Dave Witken, they said.
Witken, public safety director at Concordia, said he learned about Humble Design on the radio. A longtime listener of WGN Radio, Witken told the Journal he is a fan of the show HouseSmarts Radio with Lou Manfredini who highlighted Humble Design’s work in the city’s South and West side neighborhoods back in early March. At the time, the university’s plans to remove Gross Hall were underway, but Witken believed the furniture, which were still intact and sturdy, could be put to good use.
Witken said he called other nonprofits nearby to see if they would take the furniture but couldn’t find any takers. “Most places weren’t accepting bulk donations. I didn’t ask why. I just offered that we had dormitory furniture [that] could fit their needs, and nobody was really warm to receiving dorm furniture.”
That was up until Witken heard a segment about Humble Design on Manfredini’s show.
“Initially during the show, I texted my boss, and then I talked to him because I wanted administrative approval and go through the channels,” Witken said, adding once the idea was approved, he reached out to Manfredini and Humble Design.
From there, the ball started rolling – and fast, Witken said. A handful of Humble Design staff and volunteers arrived to the River Forest university on March 21 with at least six box trucks to claim the furniture. Concordia staff, including Witken and Matanyi, were on hand to help. Even Manfredini, who owns a few Ace Hardware stores in the Chicagoland area, came to the campus with his own box truck to load the furniture and bring it to Humble Design’s warehouse.
Manfredini said he can’t remember how he came across the nonprofit – “it was either that I read an article or saw something about them” – but he interviewed Dickenson on his show and felt inspired by the mission. Manfredini said one takeaway from his conversation with Dickinson was that Humble Design was looking for beds like the ones CUC had. Those kinds of beds, he and Dickinson said, can easily be converted into bunk beds, which are ideal for families with multiple children whose homes have small bedrooms.
“Small dressers and bunk beds are always a pain point because we never get enough of them. In small apartments, you have multiple kids in one room or a 10×10 bedroom, [and] you can only make it function with a small dresser,” Dickinson said. “Wide dressers won’t work.”
Manfredini said he made a point to show up at CUC on the day staff from the university and Humble Design was going to load the furniture. He wanted to witness the action and load up the trucks.
“The fact that Concordia and Dave and everybody kind of stepped in, it’s just terrific,” Manfredini said. “Look, all I was the mouthpiece that somebody heard. So, I’m just really happy that I played a small role in bringing people together.
“And even though I’m getting older, I’m still really good at lifting things.”
With the demolition of Gross Hall near completion, Matanyi said the university plans on renovating the area where the building once towered into a green space, with a new sidewalk and lighting. As Matanyi and Witken looked ahead to the project, they reflected on the old dorm, that parts of it have found a new home.
“It’s good to help the community and the greater community around us,” Witken said.
Want to help?
Humble Design is looking for more volunteers to help furnish homes in Chicago’s South and West side neighborhoods. For more information on the nonprofit organization, visit https://www.humbledesign.org/welcomehomechicago.