Home2Home Project Founder Jenelle Towne (center right) with her H2H crew (supplied photos)

Home2Home Project Founder Jenelle Towne (center right) with her H2H crew (supplied photos)

Home 2 Home Project calls Hodgkins home

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The Baird & Warner office in LaGrange donated $1,250 to the Home 2 Home Project as part of its annual goodwillworks donation.

By Carol McGowan

The mission sounds simple: To transform the spaces of the formerly homeless by reclaiming and re-purposing gently used household items and furniture thus creating a “Home.”

For Home 2 Home founder Janelle Towne, it’s been a long ride.

It all started in November of 2016, when Towne’s seventh-grade daughter told her she needed some community hours for school.  Little did Towne know, her life was about to change for the better.

She contacted a friend, the executive director of a local homeless shelter, to point her in the direction to help her daughter fulfill the service hours.

She learned that two girls, ages 13 and 9, had been living in the shelter with their parents. Towne could not get them off her mind. Christmas was coming so she asked to get the girls’ Christmas lists.

The requests were so basic and simple that her heart was broken. Being the mother of five children, Towne knew how much more dignified it would be for this mother to be able to pick out gifts for her children herself.

She decided to invite friends to her home two weeks before Christmas and asked everyone to bring gift cards, wrapping paper and tape so that this mother would be able to shop for her children and experience the joy of picking out gifts and wrapping them herself.

The response was overwhelming.  The “Fill in the Gap” fundraiser she put together brought in almost $5,000 worth of gift cards.  In turn, the cards were distributed to all of the families at the shelter so they could buy Christmas gifts for their families.

Months later, Towne learned that when homeless people leave shelters to get back on their feet, they usually move into an empty apartment with nothing more than an air mattress.

It was then that she started a Facebook group to gather gently used furniture and household items that people in her near west suburban area didn’t need or want any longer.

Her garage was soon filled and the donations just kept coming in.

After nearly two months, she had helped three individuals or families move in, and more were on the schedule. Towne decided that this was taking off and it would be more than just a social media thing.

“It just kept growing,” said Towne. “After nine months of getting donations, my husband came back in the house one snowy morning with an ice scraper in hand, and asked when he was getting his garage back.”

Towne jokingly said she thought her husband was going to kill her with the ice scraper. At that point, knowing she needed more space, she realized she didn’t have the ability to pay for a storage shelter for the amount of donations she had, so she put a message on Facebook to thank everyone for their past donations, and say goodbye.

“It was then, that Heather Nessler from Brookfield gathered up $1,700 from Brookfield Connections for a storage unit.  Heather is a very important part of the beginning of our organization.  She worked with me to help me get our 501c3 status.  It was after that, that we were able to secure free storage, and I was the official owner/founder of the Home2Home Project.”

Since its inception, Home 2 Home Project has grown and now has a dedicated team of over 14 volunteer designers, a 3000-square-foot warehouse, an army of over 1,500 registered volunteers, over 10 community partners who routinely make referrals, a Facebook following of over 8,000 people, and has provided beautiful, magazine worthy homes to hundreds of people, including veterans, survivors of domestic abuse and their children and basically anyone who is in need.

“What we are most proud of, is that we have dramatically reduced the rate of people returning to the shelters.  In four years, we have only had 1% of the people helped by H2H Project return to homelessness … we think it’s working!”

Before Christmas, H2H Project furnished the home of client #146.

“When we met this mother of five boys (ages 14,13,12,10 and 9), two months ago, we found them living in an infested home devoid of furniture. It had all been ruined by rodents and bugs. All the boys were sleeping on a sectional sofa, which was one of the only pieces of furniture left.”

“Our hearts were heavy and we knew that they needed a nicer place to live. We were able to encourage her to find a fabulous, clean single-family home with a fenced in backyard for the boys.”

“We had an amazing design team, and it was a huge undertaking. The volunteers who helped load, unload, and decorate, were tireless.”

Towne said just last week, an amazing group of volunteers changed the life of a humble young veteran, Client #148, just in time for the holidays.

He honorably served in the Navy for four years, and suffers from a back injury.  He went through some setbacks including going to a trade school that turned out to fraudulently prey upon veterans.

He ended up homeless and was referred to the Home 2 Home Project after the Veterans Administration found him an apartment.

In just 90 minutes, the H2H team transformed his empty apartment into a beautiful, comfortable home.

You can see many pictures of the difference H2H makes on their Facebook page by searching Home 2 Home Project.

Towne and her Home 2 Home Project were officially welcomed to Hodgkins by Mayor Ernest Millsap and the Hodgkins Board of Trustees at their December 12 board meeting.

Towne told the board about her organization, and after her business license was unanimously given the thumbs up, she stated, “Thank God … because we already moved in!”

That gave everyone a laugh and they all wished her well.

Towne says they are still moving into their new warehouse at 6119 East Ave., but are finally ready to do what they do best.   They are low on some items, and the sooner they can replenish the stock, the sooner they can get clients and their children off the floor and into beds of their own.

“We have been doing this for six years now, and it’s life changing for those we help.  They don’t consider themselves homeless anymore.”

“I remember move in #25.  It was a single mom and child.  The first thing the child did was ask his mom if he could finally have a friend over.  It’s as if he was ashamed of where he was at, and now he could be a kid like other kids and be proud of his home.”

Kirschbaum’s Bakery, of Western Springs, helps provide that warm home feeling.  Penny (the owner), donates smile face cookies for H2H to leave at the newly furnished homes.

“The kids see the cookies first, and it’s so appreciated,” said Towne.

Looking back, Towne said it’s been a learning experience that she’s so proud of.

“I didn’t know anything in the beginning.  I did research and learned a lot of things from using Facebook, to Google Drive.  I started to get into it more, then decided I was all in.  Before all this started, I was just about to pay a fee to become a real estate broker, but I turned it down. From our first storage unit at Life Storage, to five more, then from our storage area in Countryside to down the block in Hodgkins at an even bigger facility, it just gets better.

“The Hodgkins facility had a new owner in a building that we originally wanted to buy, but couldn’t afford.  The new owner has made it affordable for us to rent. We will use the back for storage to go to future clients, and hope to use the front for a vendor mall to grow our presence and theirs to cross market with them.  If we get people to rent space, it helps us both out.

“We had to grow.  There was such volume coming in, we didn’t want to turn anyone or anything away, so finding a bigger space was what we needed for our future, and the Hodgkins location was it!”

H2H’s 148th move in is complete, and they’re ready to start a new year.

They get names of future move-ins from their partnering organizations.  They also accept referrals from schools and municipalities on a case-by-case basis.  Some of the partners pay a fee for their clients, so that in turn helps with out-of-pocket costs.

“We, of course, accept donations of furniture and household items to decorate, but anything that touches the skin, we buy new.  We have an Amazon wish list for those who would like to donate.  New towels, comforters, kitchen items, etc. means the world if they’re new items. It becomes a sense of dignity with new items.”

For more information or to volunteer, visit the Home2Home Project Facebook page, or contact info@h2hproject.org.

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