Helping turn a house into a home

April 15, 2024

A College of Business course partnered with Humble Design Detroit, a nonprofit that custom designs and fully furnishes home interiors for people emerging from homelessness.

photo from Humble Design family home reveal
A Detroit-area family walks into their new home, with an interior by Humble Design Detroit. Photo courtesy: Humble Design Detroit staff

A U.S. Army veteran came home to a professionally designed home in calming shades of blue and gray, and a stocked kitchen with stainless steel appliances. A mother and her kids, after leaving a domestic violence situation, walked into a fully furnished apartment to start their new lives. A family with three young boys — who traveled 6,000 miles to find refuge in the U.S. — exclaimed with joy when they saw the sports- and space-themed bedrooms for the kids.

These are not reveals from an HGTV show. These transformations are happening in homes throughout metro Detroit thanks to Humble Design Detroit. And UM-Dearborn students spent a semester supporting these types of life-changing makeovers for people who had previously experienced homelessness.

Humble Design is a national nonprofit that started in Michigan in 2009. Through its five warehouses nationwide, Humble Design uses donated and repurposed furniture, paint and more to custom design and fully furnish home interiors for individuals, families and veterans emerging from homelessness. Students in the College of Business’ “Managerial Communication” course partnered with Humble Design Detroit to help with awareness campaigns, fundraising and more. 

Lecturer Jennifer Coon, a long-term volunteer for Humble Design, recently redesigned the course, with support from UM-Dearborn’s Hub for Teaching and Learning Resources, and with project-based learning and community service in mind.

“It might seem like it’s only going from an air mattress to a bed, a little painting on the wall or adding dishes to the kitchen. But it is much more than that. It’s transformative for the people who have gotten to that point in their lives and in their journey. Statistics show that up to 50% of people return to homelessness one year after securing housing. Among Humble Design’s clients, that number is less than 1%,” Coon says. “This is important for the greater community because a stable home is shown to increase graduation rates for the children and reduce recidivism among formerly homeless adults.” 

Photo of Jennifer Coon
COB Lecturer Jennifer Coon

She also wanted to teach the core COB course in a way that students could take the business communication theories, strategies and techniques they were learning and apply them in the real world — while also seeing how their business skills could make an impact in their communities.

“Teaching future business leaders, we want them to have a project they can put on their resumes that shows experience. But there was also a lesson within the lessons. I wanted them to know why it’s important to work with humanity in mind,” says Coon, who taught the course in Fall 2023 and will offer it again in Fall 2024. “No matter the field they go into, there are transferable ways to use their skills — and those skills can make a difference to people and in places they may not have thought to look.”

If you are interested in donating so the class can sponsor a Humble Design home makeover for a family, please contact Coon.

College of Business junior Julia Chealto, who is studying business communication, says the class was a favorite of hers because it tapped into her love of community service and showed her business-focused ways  she can help the nonprofit industry.

“We are in college to get skills to be successful. But we often equate success to money. We need to talk more about giving back. In addition to making money, I think we all want to put good into our workplaces and into the world. This class showed me how to do that through writing grants, making infographics and writing short, effective messaging — you need to get the right information across quickly to respect people’s time and get results,” Chealto says. “I loved this class and the way Professor Coon taught it.”

In addition to writing brief, factual and direct communications, students learned more about the struggles people experience. They read Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” heard stories from people about why they are homeless and saw how Humble Design transformed people’s lives through form and function changes in their homes.

Accounting major Jacob Thompson says he’s completed finance-based internships for Rehmann and Wipfli, and he’s working for Rehmann again this summer. Thompson, who expects to graduate in 2025, feels prepared to work in his field. But this class added another element to his education.

“Doing public accounting, I typically meet with clients who have wealth. This class has given me an awareness I didn’t have before. I can lend my skills to assist nonprofits in helping people who need it most,” Thompson says. 

In the course, students wrote grant proposals to the Kresge Foundation, the Hearst Foundation, Homeless Action Network, Invest Detroit Foundation and the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. Their proposals asked for funds to buy mattresses, additional warehouse space for donated materials and more. Some examples of Humble Design Detroit's makeovers are below.

Humble Design Detroit’s Executive Director Chris Tull reviewed all of the submitted infographics and grant proposals and provided feedback to Coon last month. Tull, who met with the class on multiple occasions, said students were interested in learning more about community service work, developing mission-driven career paths and using their skills to give back. “The students’ output in terms of the project — infographics and grants proposals — showed me they really listened to what our mission was and there was thought put into it,” Tull says. “Students matched what we do to their output; it wasn’t a check-the-box exercise for them.” 

Tull says the students’ passion toward the project was evident in their work. For example, Thompson continues to work with Humble Design by refining his grant proposal to the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, which Humble Design plans to submit. “I learned how much research goes into writing a grant proposal. I’m excited to see what the outcome will be for Humble Design and the people they help,” Thompson says.

Coon says her goal when teaching the 50 UM-Dearborn students in the fall was to plant a seed of giving back. She hopes that one day, when  her students are further along in their careers, they will consider volunteer work like donating labor and time, serving on a board, grant writing, mentoring, fundraising and more. But she learned something in this class too — her students wanted to help out now.

“They are still focused on markets and finances and the other areas of business, but they are continuing to look for opportunities to help others. My course feedback was overwhelmingly positive,” she says. “Our job is to teach the next generation of scholars — and that includes lessons of empathy and respect. I had a pitch ready to get them on board, but they were all-in. I’m so proud of our students, the work they do and look forward to seeing the differences they’ll make in the future.”

Article by Sarah Tuxbury.