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Be it ever so humble

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How Microsoft employees help address the homeless crisis

Volunteers participate in a Deco Day, and a family comes home for the first time.

Think about your home. Large or small, grand or simple, it’s a comfortable and safe place. Now think of everything that goes into making your house a home — the couch where you read books to your children, the cookware you use to make family meals, the bedding that you curl up in at night.

For families and individuals who are emerging from homelessness, furnishings like these can transform an empty house or apartment into a warm, stable home.

It’s not the table and chairs that give families that safe, settled-in feeling we enjoy in our homes. It’s the shared time of a meal at the table, a desk where children can do homework, or a warm bed where family members can rest and dream.

Tia Baker, director of operations, Humble Design Seattle

Setting the stage for success

In front of a wall of family photos, a mother, father and three children are sitting on a couch in their new home.  Around them are six volunteers from Microsoft and Humble Design, all smiling with satisfaction.

A family enjoying their new home with volunteers from Microsoft and Humble Design.

The mission of Humble Design isn’t just furnishing homes. It’s also furnishing hope. With donated items and local volunteers, including many Microsoft employees, the nonprofit organisation turns dwellings into dignified and welcoming homes that can change lives.

According to Tia Baker, director of operations for Humble Design Seattle, a home isn’t made up of the possessions inside, but what those possessions make possible. “It’s not the table and chairs that give families that safe, settled-in feeling we enjoy in our homes,” she says. “It’s the shared time of a meal at the table, a desk where children can do homework, or a warm bed where family members can rest and dream.”

During her years with a major law firm in Seattle, Baker felt helpless as she encountered the widespread homeless crisis. “I was doing well professionally, but I felt like my work lacked purpose. It didn’t make me feel fulfilled, and I come from a family that is adamant about giving back,” says Baker. “When I heard that Humble Design was looking to expand into Seattle, I made the switch in March 2018.”

A hand-built network for service

The journey to bring Humble Design to the Seattle area was serendipitous. Stephanie Worley, a senior marketing manager at Microsoft and fan of HGTV, was inspired to help bring Humble Design to the Seattle area when she watched an emotional video revealing a newly designed home for a family that was transitioning out of homelessness. Baker says Worley was instrumental in raising funds and networking within the community. Humble Design tapped into a set of emotions that helped generate support from a passionate group of people across our community, including many Microsoft employees. The campaign to bring Humble Design to Seattle resulted in raising the funds needed to hire a local team and secure the King County warehouse that Humble Design Seattle now calls home.

“Once we got into this long-abandoned, 65,000-square-foot warehouse, things got hands-on very fast,” Baker says. One Monday morning, Humble Design Seattle heard that a major retailer in Bellevue, Washington, was closing. “They offered us $100,000 in racks and storage units if we could remove them that week,” Baker says. “We drove a 26-foot rental truck back and forth until we had disassembled and moved them all to our warehouse. The support of numerous community volunteers helped us put the warehouse together.”

Learning, then leading by example

Microsoft has a long history of supporting nonprofits. Every October since 1983, the Microsoft GIVE campaign has encouraged employees to give back by matching employee donations of time and money to nonprofit organisations. Giving time comes naturally to Mandy Leifheit, a Bing Ads account executive, who learned from a pro. Her grandmother, at 88 years of age, was still tutoring students to help them achieve their GED. Leifheit first heard of the Humble Design volunteer opportunity during a GIVE campaign presentation given by Worley in October 2017.

“Some people love to garden or to cook. I love to decorate, but I live in a one-bedroom condo. How many times can you rework a small space?” Leifheit says. “The Humble Design Deco Day was the perfect intersection of my passion for creating a coy home and serving my community.” After sorting donations in the warehouse and helping with a Deco Day experience, Leifheit was hooked.

If you find your passion, you’ll always have energy to give.

Mandy Leifheit, account executive, Bing Ads

Making network connections face to face

Humble Design designers work in teams of two. They meet with a family in their new, empty home on a Wednesday morning. They ask about the interests of each family member, like favourite colours and special interests. Then the designers return to the warehouse to tag items for that family. The warehouse manager loads a truck and delivers the large items, such as beds, sofas, dressers and tables, early Friday morning. Then a team of volunteers joins the design team to put the home together in a day. The day ends with a reveal of the newly decorated home to the family. “A Humble Design reveal is one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had,” says Leifheit.

Helping people through Humble Design has been so gratifying that Leifheit has encouraged others to join her. “Volunteering my time doing something away from the office and outside of my normal day challenges me to use a different set of skills,” she says. “I routinely invite co-workers to join me, but then I had the idea to invite some of my Bing Ads clients, so we could share in the joy of Deco Day together. Because I’d already been through the experience once, I knew what they could expect,” she says, smiling.

What it means to lend a helping hand

According to Leifheit, every volunteer opportunity is a chance to grow personally and professionally. “The fundraising and leadership skills I’ve learned as a volunteer have been invaluable in my sales career,” she says. “But pursuing your passion is key. If you find your passion, you’ll always have energy to give.”

Humble Design has locations in Detroit, Chicago, Seattle and San Diego. Learn more about Humble Design and how you can contribute toward the stability of families in your area.