The apartment was grim and spare, with only one sign that it was home to three young girls: a worn Hello Kitty shower curtain.
David Melendez, a U.S. citizen who was raised in Puerto Rico and lived in Honduras for nearly 25 years, had moved into the apartment in Germantown with his daughters in September 2013. A terrifying close call with violence in Honduras had led him to the American consulate there, begging for safe passage to the United States.
The consulate was able to book tickets to the United States for Melendez and his three daughters, but his Honduran wife was required to remain in the country until her immigration paperwork came through. After spending several weeks at The National Center for Children and Families’ Greentree Shelter in Bethesda, Melendez and his daughters were placed in their own apartment. But it didn’t feel like home.
The girls—Rut, 10, Zuleyka, 8, and Daniela, 5—struggled to learn English and cried often for their mother. They had nightmares about men with AK-47s outside their home.
One day, a social worker from NCCF told Melendez that a woman would be stopping by while he was at work and the girls were at school to decorate their apartment. He didn’t give it much thought.
But Melendez will never forget coming home that night. His daughters ran through the house, “screaming and yelling and dancing,” he says. They screeched with joy when they saw their names above their beds, framed Hello Kitty pictures on the bathroom wall, and a cotton-candy-colored rug to match their shower curtain.
“I still remember looking around and thinking, ‘It’s like a real house, like the house we had in Honduras,’ ” Melendez says. “I cried like a baby, because I don’t deserve all those blessings. And I remember thinking, ‘God bless that lady.’ ”
He didn’t even know her name.
The act of decorating an apartment may seem like a small thing compared with the kinds of tragedies NCCF’s clients face. The nonprofit organization, based on Greentree Road in Bethesda, operates shelters and transitional housing for children, young adults and families dealing with everything from domestic abuse to drug addiction to poverty.
Karen Murley, the NCCF volunteer who decorated Melendez’s apartment, is not a social worker or counselor. She doesn’t try to diagnose or heal the effects of a family’s heartbreaking past, and sometimes doesn’t even meet her clients before she begins decorating the NCCF apartments or group houses where they’ll be living.
But she has an unbelievable knack for seeing potential—even beauty—in things that may seem useless, things that other people have given away. “She’ll take something that we would have put out onto the curb, and the next thing you know, she’ll have painted it and changed the hardware to turn it into something that any of us would be happy to have in our homes,” says Margaret Gainer, a longtime friend of Murley’s who has helped her decorate several projects.
Murley knows that a few pictures of an animated cat lovingly preserved in frames that someone else didn’t need may help three little girls feel at ease in a new country. She knows that a pink throw rug is the kind of touch their own mother might use to make a new apartment feel like home if she could be there with them. Whether she’s decorating for a former foster child who has aged out of the system, a woman who has fled an abusive relationship, or a family escaping homelessness, Murley knows that a matching rug and throw pillows can make the difference between feeling adrift and feeling at home.
“We’ve decorated apartments where the residents would spend all their time at home sitting in their bedroom watching TV because the rest of the apartment was empty,” Murley says. “To be able to give them a place where they feel comfortable and safe is extremely rewarding.”
The first thing Murley noticed when she visited the Melendez apartment was the Hello Kitty shower curtain. So she went out and found a Hello Kitty coloring book at a thrift store, copied several pages from the book, and painted them in bright colors. She put the painted pictures into frames donated to NCCF and hung them on the bathroom wall. She outfitted the rest of the apartment with items donated to the center, from the office nook she created for Melendez to the play area she set up for the girls.
Over the eight years that Murley has been volunteering for NCCF, she has done the same thing at countless apartments, and at four group homes for abused or homeless women and their families. Murley often faces design constraints that go beyond money and space. When she redesigned NCCF’s cafeteria—painting gray walls and concrete floors with cheerful primary colors—she had to find chairs and tables that were too heavy for a kid to throw.
“We have kids who are off the chain with anger and rage, kids who have been pushed off on us because they don’t have a family, or because their home is a war zone,” says Sheryl Brissett Chapman, the center’s executive director. “Karen has taught us that if a place is beautiful—not luxurious, but beautiful—these kids can have the energy to dream of a good life, a life they’re going to have to fight for.”
When you listen to Murley, 74, discuss color wheels and window treatments, it’s easy to imagine that she had a long and successful career as an interior decorator. In fact, Murley, who lives in Bethesda, spent her working life as a legal administrator and then as a consultant for The World Bank. She’d always enjoyed decorating her own home, and loved watching HGTV—especially shows in which decorators used recycled or repurposed items. So when she retired in 2005, she signed up for a weeklong interior redecorating and staging course in Erie, Pa.
Murley was adamant that she didn’t want to start a business—the taxes and logistics seemed like too much of a hassle. So for the next year, she decorated pro bono for friends and family. In early 2007, the teacher of Murley’s redecorating course reached out to her. She was teaching a course in the Bethesda area and wondered if Murley would be willing to let her students redecorate a room of her house.
Murley agreed, and after the students revealed her “new” living room, she joined them for lunch. One woman said she was taking the class to help her with her volunteer work, decorating apartments and houses for NCCF. Murley chimed in right away: Could she use any help?
Kathy Connelly had already decorated a few homes for NCCF’s FutureBound Independent Living Program, which provides furnished apartments for young adults who are homeless or have aged out of the foster care system. Plenty of friends had offered to help, but they would lend an hour here or there, getting bored of the drudgery of hauling housewares from a van to a studio apartment, then spending the afternoon hanging pictures and placing throw pillows.
Murley was different. “She would just roll up her sleeves and stay for the duration, and when we’d get done, she’d say, ‘Let’s start on the next one,’ ” says Connelly, who was living in Chevy Chase at the time.
The volunteer job quickly became a passion for Murley, who says she felt a rush of pride every time she finished an apartment. She had served as a Red Cross volunteer at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, but this felt different—it took a talent Murley never knew she had, and connected it with people who didn’t know they needed it.
Murley’s first big job was to decorate Betty’s House, a group home for immigrant women and their American-born children who had escaped domestic violence. NCCF had funding for new beds, and for one or two couches for the four-bedroom, five-bathroom house, but nothing for frills. Murley spent nearly two months gathering materials before starting to decorate.
She opted for a red and black color theme in the TV room, with red couches, black flowered pillowcases, a black chair and a black and red painting above the fireplace. For the living room, she built the color scheme around a donated painting featuring a gold and maroon landscape. She sewed iridescent bronze curtains to match the bronze and maroon pillowcases that perfectly accent the beige couch and dark wood furniture.
Chapman says laying eyes on the finished product moved her to tears.
Connelly moved to Rehoboth Beach, Del., almost three years ago, leaving the redecorating program in Murley’s hands. Since then, Murley has “really taken it to a new level,” Connelly says, decorating NCCF’s administrative offices in Bethesda and hand-painting murals on the walls of an NCCF shelter in Northwest D.C.
No matter what the project, Murley always starts in “Dr. C’s Boutique,” a donation store on NCCF’s Bethesda campus. Everything in the boutique is free to NCCF clients, who can shop there with their case managers. According to Lauren Ruffin, NCCF’s director of development and institutional advancement, the center accepted $2.5 million worth of donations in the last fiscal year, including furniture and home accessories worth $325,000.
The Nordstrom store at Westfield Montgomery mall donates employees’ time to help keep the boutique organized—the neat racks of blazers, shirts and pants make the space look more like a department store than a thrift shop.
?On a recent morning, Murley scans the shelves of home accessories, briefly eyeing stacks of serving plates and salad bowls before heading back to the sorting room. There, bright yellow bins are full of donated items from the community—a mishmash of paintings, tablecloths and decorative fruit bowls—that become the foundation for new rooms for NCCF clients.
Murley has her own shelf in the sorting room marked with a sign noting, “Karen’s shelf for her stuff.” When she can’t find donated items to meet a specific client’s needs, she sends a mass email to her network of friends. They usually come through, sometimes with new items they purchase and donate to the cause. Murley stashes many of her finds in a rented storage unit, which she took on after her husband pleaded with her to stop keeping donated furniture and housewares in their Bethesda home.
?Look at the materials Murley has gathered in the back of her silver SUV for a particular project, and you’ll see what appears to be a perfectly serviceable but unremarkable set of furniture and accessories—such as a stack of unused placemats or empty picture frames. It’s only after she has reworked and rearranged everything, combining this donated canvas with that thrift-store vase, that the magic emerges.
Murley has become a master of masking minor flaws, restoring beaten-up furniture to near-new condition by using Magic Markers and wood glue to fill in spots and nicks. She sews slipcovers for dingy couches, and repaints wood furniture. She and a former World Bank colleague have even taken up painting, and have repainted donated canvases with still-life scenes to match various rooms Murley has decorated.
“Sometimes I think it would be nice to have brand-new furniture for a house or apartment I’m decorating,” Murley says. “But if someone said here’s a million dollars, go decorate this house, I couldn’t do it. I’d probably spend half of it—and feel wasteful for spending that—and give the rest back.”
Connelly recalls one job in which Murley whipped up faux Roman shades to match a client’s throw pillows. “Her biggest talent is seeing something that someone else might view as useless, like an old panel of fabric, and saying, ‘I can do something with that,’ ” Connelly says. “She has the ability to take something that’s free or low cost and repurpose it in a way that can turn a space into something wonderful.”
Carlos, a Montgomery College student who asked to be identified only by his first name, says his last foster family didn’t care what he did, let him run wild. Now 19, Carlos moved from their home into a group home for boys at NCCF in early 2013. In October of that year, he moved into an apartment managed by the FutureBound program.
Carlos met briefly with Murley before she started decorating the two-bedroom apartment, which was empty aside from a few pieces of basic furniture and a bare twin bed. Murley clustered a couch, armchair and end tables to create a seating area in the living room. She repainted an old canvas with blue and burned-orange squares—Carlos’ favorite colors—and hung it on the wall above the television. She arranged burned-orange placemats on his dining room table, and found a series of peaceful blue paintings to hang above his bed, which she dressed with a navy blue mattress and white and blue throw pillows.
?She noticed that he had a large sketch notebook, and learned that he liked to draw. So she found a professional drafting table for him—a detail Carlos says transformed his bedroom into his “get out of this world” room. “She incorporated this huge drafting table into my room, and it still feels like there’s a ton of space to move around,” he says. “I don’t know how she did it.”
Murley knows that her clients’ stories don’t all end happily. She knows that families sometimes leave NCCF programs before graduating from them, and she knows that houses or apartments she’s lovingly decorated are sometimes left in terrible condition. None of that deters her.
At first, Connelly says, she and Murley bought groceries for all the homes they decorated. They eventually stopped.
“In the beginning, we were trying to rescue every family,” Connelly says. “But we’re not social workers.”
Although Murley no longer stocks clients’ refrigerators, she does bake brownies every time she’s decorating so the scent will fill the home when the family walks in. She tries to believe that making a house into a home is enough.
“The people who come here, it’s not their choice to be homeless or be abused,” Murley says. “I don’t have the ability to make them a better life. I do have the ability to give them a home where they can feel safe and comfortable—at least a place to start.” n
Amy Reinink is a frequent contributor to the magazine who also writes for Runner’s World and other outdoor publications. To comment on this story, email email@example.com.