A Chance for Young Mums: IKEA co-workers in Philadelphia renovate a refuge for families at risk

Words by Sofia Zetterman; Pictures by Magnus Glans – Originally published in IKEA’s Readme Magazine in the February 2016 issue.

“Now this feels like a real home.”

The IKEA vision of creating a better everyday life for the many people includes the idea of being “a good neighbur.” Co-workers in Philadelphia have taken that to heart.

Thanks to their efforts, a refuge for homeless young mothers has been given a comprehensive makeover.

“For us, it’s about more than just cheering up a building – it’s about changing these women’s lives,” says Fabian Navejas from IKEA Conshohocken.

“We wanted to create solutions to help these  young mothers.”

Dream big and believe.

That’s what it says on the wall of the Northern Children’s Services (NCS) refuge for homeless young mothers in Philadelphia, USA.  Belief is the ever-present theme here. Belief in people and in teenage mums who have been saved from the street and given hope for themselves and their children.

The NCS has been helping poor and disadvantaged children for more  than 160 years.  Today 24 young mothers, aged 13-21 call the NCS campus on a grassy knoll outside Philadelphia their home.  Here, cared for by a team of therapists and psychologists, they attend weekly career classes to learn how to turn dreams into future jobs, parenting classes to help them look after their babies, and other classes dealing with everything from sexually transmitted diseases to interpersonal relations.

The girls lack more than a roof over their head.  They lack social networks, social knowledge, education and vocational training.  They lack money to buy toothbrushes, diapers, soap – things we others take for granted,

“Our girls have lived on the streets, been sexually abused, maltreated, jailed.  They’re traumatised.  Living here is part of the healing process. I can’t tell you how important it is for them to have a place to live.  They’ve never had a home of their own.” says Barri Morgan of NCS.

NCS offers a temporary haven where the women can learn to cope with life before returning to the world outside.

Thanks to IKEA, their rooms have now been transformed into real homes.  Last year the 1 6 rooms in Merrick Hall were completely renovated by 70 enthusiastic co-workers from IKEA Conshohocken, IKEA South Philly and the US Service Office.  They took the job so seriously, it was hard to leave once the renovation was complete.  So this year, the blue-and-yellow IKEA team turned to tackle a new project: in one busy week eight more living quarters, a common room and dining room were totally transformed.

“All the furnishing and decorating we did had a meaning, a goal.  We wanted to create solutions to help these young mothers look after their babies, their school work and clothes,” says Fabian Navejas, responsible for communication and interior design at IKEA Conshohocken.

The greatest challenge was solving so many needs in so little space.  Money was short, too, but there was certainly no shortage of enthusiasm.

Martina Bjuvenius, 32, from Communication and Interior Design led the work on site.

We wanted to create a proper home for these women, a bright, pleasant place.  And our fantastic co-workers did their utmost to make sure we succeeded.”

The most urgent problem was the lack of storage.  Rooms were cluttered with piles of shoes and clothes.  Cots were so full of other stuff, there was no room for a baby.  There was no storage for clothes, hygiene articles, personal effects or laundry.

But the IKEA team tackled the task with a smile, refusing to let a lack of funds compromise functionality.  After a week of long, hard working days the house was transformed with the help of a few bright coats of paint and countless flat packs.  Thanks to smart, flexible, child-safe solutions, the small rooms now contain all that is needed in a home with a baby.  Like STUVA cot, for example, that converts into a bed for older children and has integral storage.

After the renovation the home has room for another eight mothers.  To day, 24 mums and 30 children live in rooms furnished by IKEA.  There are also four permanent apartments for mothers and children with special needs and a need to look after the children while their mothers are in school.

For IKEA co-worker Katrina Probst, 45, the residents’ appreciation of their new quarters was reward enough for all the hard work.

“They love them.  We’ve done a good job.  The rooms really cheer up their lives – and their spirits. One mother told us her baby slept all night for the first time in the new bed.  We really have created a better everyday life for these young women,” Katrina says.

For Jacquie Patterson, Chief Development Officer at NCS, the difference in accommodation is like night and day.

“Moving into your own beautiful, fully furnished home, with everything from bedding to crockery is unique.  After being shunted between foster homes, living on the streets and giving birth in young offenders’ institutions, these girls now have a chance to bring up their family in what resembles a proper home – something they’ve never experienced before.  It’s fantastic to see how safe and secure they feel, maybe for the very first time in their lives.”

The bright, fresh new rooms have transformed the women’s lives.  All of them now want to stay as long as possible. They used to eat separately; now they all sit together in the dining room, like one big family.

But the makeover means even more according to Gus Keirans, Child Welfare Division Director at NCS: “It has a big impact on how the girls see themselves.  We’re sending a message to them that they have a value as human beings; they’re worth all of this.  No one has ever shown them they’re worth anything before.  Everyone here is eternally grateful for the fantastic difference IKEA has made.”

And the IKEA co-workers in Philly have got the bit between their teeth.  Now they want to do more for those most in need in the store’s immediate surroundings.

“They’re always prodding me to start a new project,” Fabian says,  There’s certainly no mistaking their eagerness to help those less fortunate than themselves.”

Now Kayla is ready to face the world.

After almost a year at the NCS home, Kayla Thomas, 18, is ready to stand on her own two feet. She’s become a proud mother, started her education and learnt all she needs to know before moving into her own home with her nine-month old daughter, Aubrey.  Now she’s dreaming of training as an oncologist. 

“I’ve burned a lot of bridges and made many mistakes,” says Kayla Thomas, when we meet her and her princess, Aubrey, in their cosy, IKEA-styled room at NCS.

“But, instead of kicking me out, the staff here have helped me get back on my feet.  They’ve helped me mature.  I can tell them everything and get their advice.”

Throughout her childhood Kayla was transferred between more foster homes than she can remember.

“This is the first time I’ve had a fixed address in my life since I was nine.”

You can’t overestimate the importance of a place to live.  NCS was a haven for teenage Kayla when she was expecting a baby.  Simply having a place to leave her personal possessions after years of carrying all she owned around with her in a few plastic bags.  And a bathroom of your own is the icing on the cake when you’re pregnant or caring for a newborn baby,

“I was so happy to move in here.  It’s so cool! And I’m happy to be a mother – and have someone who loves me,” Kayla says, kissing little Aubrey.

The therapy and parenting classes at NCS have been invaluable for Kayla.  Now she’s ready to stand on her own two feet.

“I feel kinda nervous moving out, but I’m well prepared/  I’ve learned how to cope, how to manage my money and all the other stuff I need to know.  I’ve worked hard for this.  Now I want to live my dream.  I want to train to be an oncologist.”



Northern Children's Services