Extreme apartment makeover benefits homeless girls

The downstairs of the girls’ transitional housing on the Steppingstone campus in eastern Kansas City could have been mistaken for the scene of one of those extreme home makeover shows last week.

Almost all the elements were there: The gutted living rooms, the volunteers feverishly working paint rollers, the high-pitched whine of electric tools. The only thing missing was the television cameras.

But members of the Junior Service League of Independence, who organized the project, are fine with that. The reward for them is the difference they will make in the lives of homeless teens who are learning to live on their own as they enter adulthood.

“When girls come in here, they can feel safe and secure and have the opportunity to reflect on where they’ve been and where they could go,” said Cynthia Leutzinger, of Sugar Creek, one of the league’s team leaders. “This will better their circumstances to build dreams, so they don’t stay stuck.”

The week-long rehab was part pledge-class project and part competition for the about 75 members who participated, said Shannon Sundberg, provisional class president of the League.

The group of first-year members divided into two teams with longer-term members to redo two of three studio apartments at the Steppingstone campus.

Each group had a week to rip out carpet and wall coverings — if they so desired — and install new appliances, counters and furniture. At the end, a non-League interior decorator was to judge the design choices and award a trophy to the winning team.

But it’s really all about the girls, said Sundberg, who lives in Grain Valley. Her class chose the apartment rehab after hearing of the problems of increasing teen homelessness.

And the group wanted a project where members could be more active than they might be in traditional fund-raising, she said.

“We kind of wanted to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty,” she said.

The project was timed well for Steppingstone, a non-profit that helps homeless kids from 15 1/2 to 21 years old learn to live on their own. The girls’ building, which can house up to 17 girls, has not had extensive updating for about 20 years, said Lynn Durbin, director.

“It was very much due,” he said. “If you can imagine rotating teenagers through, these apartments take a lot of abuse.”

The girls’ building has three studio apartments, with the rest of the space a group living setting for younger kids. Durbin said most kids start out in group living and then spend a short time in the apartments while they’re transitioning to live on their own.

The transitional housing program is Steppingstone’s effort to help kids who are homeless or about to age out of the foster-care system. Durbin said about half the kids at Steppingstone are referred by agencies, with the other half coming from private referrals or even contacting the non-profit themselves.

Most of the League’s changes in the apartments were cosmetic. Anything involving new wiring or plumbing would have required permits, Sundberg said. But there was plenty to do anyway. Carpet in one apartment was old and ceiling tiles were stained.

The studio apartments each had one bathroom, a bedroom/living area and a small kitchenette. Work on one side involved new ceiling tiles, carpet, wall covering, cabinetry and appliances. On the other, volunteers put in a new sink, shelves, a tiled countertop and chalkboard paint to create a message board on one of the doors.

The materials were donated or bought with cash donations, said Eden Dowler, League provisional class vice president. The cash and in-kind donations were estimated at $7,500 and growing, said Dowler, of Kansas City.

About eight people, including some husband recruits, crowded into the apartments just a couple of nights before the deadline.

Of course, there were the usual setbacks with home repairs. Wrong measurements. Surprise wiring locations. But the hardest part was the planning, said volunteer Shelly Kliefoth of Independence.

“The toughest was coming in here in one night and imagining what pieces will fit in here and all fall together,” she said.

The occupants of the apartments agreed to move temporarily into another part of the building while their space was being redone. But although they weren’t peeking until the project was unveiled Saturday evening, some other girls in the building came down and lent a hand, Dowler said.

Those girls got to try their hand at spackling and staining wood, she said.

“They also got to interact with a group of strong women with a personal commitment to their community.”