South Shore family’s apartment transforms into ‘happy place’

Chicago nonprofit Humble Designs transformed one family’s home into a beach-inspired oasis fit for caring for their 4-year-old daughter with a rare neurological disorder.

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Jesenia Perez holds up her daughter, Julianiz Oliveras’, arm to wave to a camera, as she tours her remodeled apartment on Wednesday. Humble Design transformed the space for them.

Jesenia Perez holds up her daughter, Julianiz Oliveras’, arm to wave to a camera, as she tours her remodeled apartment on Wednesday. Humble Design transformed the space for them.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

In South Shore, the Perez family left their 2 bedroom apartment at 9 a.m. Wednesday with only a medical bed and bare essentials inside, but by 2 p.m. it changed into a fully-furnished, meticulously designed home.

Beaches and waterfronts had always provided a sense of comfort to Jesenia Perez, reminders of when she lived in Puerto Rico and of views of Lake Michigan from her daughter’s hospital room. That’s what inspired the sandy tones and teals Humble Design brought into their home Wednesday.

“This makes me feel like I’m in my happy place,” Perez said.

Humble Design, which helps families who are placed in affordable housing make their spaces their own, has transformed nearly 500 homes since their start in 2017, according to director Julie Dickinson. Each week, they complete three homes with around 150 volunteers.

Once a family is selected through the help of partner agencies, including ones that run homeless shelters, the process starts about a week before the reveal day, with a site visit and conversation with the family. On the big day, a team of volunteers floods into the apartment for six hours, arranging furniture, hanging curtains and putting pictures into frames before the family returns.

Perez said a secure, comfortable home is essential to ensure she can provide care to her 4-year-old, Julianiz Sofia Oliveras, who has TBCK syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that causes low muscle tone and requires around-the-clock care.

“We didn’t have anything,” Perez said about the apartment prior to its transformation. “I didn’t want to be here; I wanted to feel more at home.”

When the family didn’t have a steady place to stay, Julianiz had to stay in the hospital.

“I wanted her to be stable. I wanted her to be home, but through the stuff that we were going through with our apartments, it was making them not give her to me to come home,” Perez said.

Jesenia Perez gets emotional seeing the master bedroom she shares with her youngest daughter,  Julianiz Oliveras after it was remodeled by Humble Design on Wednesday, May 4, 2022.

Jesenia Perez gets emotional seeing the master bedroom she shares with her youngest daughter, Julianiz Oliveras after it was remodeled by Humble Design on Wednesday, May 4, 2022.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

A corner of the main bedroom was customized for Julianiz, with medical supplies next to her favorite musical toys and an art piece of her favorite show, “Cocomelon,” hanging above her crib.

“She’s going to be so happy in her crib now,” Perez said.

The beauty is in the details, according to designer Natalie Daemi. She said she worked her way through the maze of the Humble Design’s warehouse, choosing light blue vases, seashell-inspired candleholders and coastal frames to hold their family’s photos.

“You can tell they’re genuinely happy people despite their hardship,” Daemi said. “They have so much love for each other.”

A photo of Jesenia Perez and her family sits on a table as workers with Humble Design frantically clean up after remodeling Jesenia Perez’s  apartment on Wednesday, May 4, 2022.

A photo of Jesenia Perez and her family sits on a table as workers with Humble Design frantically clean up after remodeling Jesenia Perez’s apartment on Wednesday, May 4, 2022.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Dickinson said listening to, and following through with, what families want in their homes is an essential part of the process.

She called it a “trauma-informed” way of designing, “by listening and by caring and by hearing and then by showing that you’ve listened ... and acting on what you say that you’re going to do.”

And, according to Dickinson, the process works. The group checks in with families a year after their reveal day and 95 to 99 percent are still in their homes.

Dickinson said she experienced homelessness as a child living in the Northwest suburbs, so she knows how much little things — like having your own bathroom mirror — can mean to a kid.

“There was a family that had two years in a shelter, and for years they lived in a tent under the bridge,” Dickinson said, but when they saw their new home, “there’s this little moment where they’re standing in the bathroom together and they all just fling their hair around in the mirror, and it’s just that magic.”

Dickinson said she wants to see affordable housing reform to get more families into their own space.

“It is beyond cruel to me that we have kids ... sleeping on the floor, and that we have moms struggling to figure out where they’re going to be day-to-day,” Dickinson said.

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