[A Space to Embrace]
Words by Tracy Nicholson
Event Photography by Darren Gibbins Photography, Transformation photos by Chris Welsand
We recently crossed paths with a non-profit by the name of Down Home and couldn't wait to meet with the founders, Jenessa and Jacob Fillipi to find out more. Follow them on social media and you'll see why; there's a steady stream of videos and photos showing them transforming vacant apartments and homes into warm, loving environments - all in a two-three hour time span. The difference is that they are not designers, home flippers or remodelers; and they're certainly not getting paid for it. The Fillipis are simply a caring family working hard to help transition the homeless into homes. Going beyond the basic necessities, their fully decorated spaces have become the catalyst for a better life. Creating a new space to embrace would mean giving the gift of hope and a fresh start to those with limited resources. Last month, we were invited to join them at their first "Hoedown for Homes" fundraiser at The Yard, a gorgeous down-home setting on the Red River in South Moorhead.
Down Home: Their Story
Before we kick up our boots at The Yard, we need to introduce you to the people behind the cause, Jenessa and Jacob Fillipi. Their 16-year marriage has been blessed with many things, including four children, rewarding careers and a growing need to give back. As an elementary school counselor, Jenessa Fillipi had noticed a gap in the lives and transitions of the underprivileged and homeless, and she knew something had to be done. She would go on to combine her experience as a counselor and a love for interior decorating with her husband's handyman skills. Sharing these gifts would mean providing a sought-after service to our community members in need.
"Jake and I started seeing a similar gap in both of our professions - the gap being that families and children were transitioning from place to place. When they actually do settle in, they don't have enough money to purchase mattresses, pillows, bedding...really all of the things that so many of us take for granted," said Jenessa Fillipi.
Prompted to find a solution, last September - Jenessa, Jake and their children quickly began brainstorming and realized a divine vision as Down Home came to life. Their name would come courtesy of a song by the band, Alabama, 'Down home, where they know you by name and treat you like family.' "This lyric rings true to our mission of empowerment and dedication to building a stronger community," said Jenessa Fillipi. "It was evident there was a need, and now there's a solution."
The Down Home Mission
“Our mission is to provide furnishings and décor for families transitioning from homelessness into permanent housing," said Jenessa Fillipi. "Our deeper purpose is to turn an empty space into a place to embrace, breath and feel safe. With this help, we want to empower families to dream big, succeed and be involved in the community; this is one step we can do to help break the cycle of homelessness. We aspire to empower lives one home at a time."
Hoedown for Homes Event
At Down Home's September 13th fundraising event at The Yard, located in rural Moorhead on the Red River, attendees kicked up their boots enjoying the likes of emcee Daron Selvig. Guests enjoyed an array of down-home delicacies, a video presentation created by Tyson Kuznia of Creative Social Marketing, yard games by the Fargo Invaders, cocktails, craft beer served by Crooked Pint catering, live and silent auctions, and of course a little country music - courtesy of Nathan Kaiser of Harmon Entertainment.
Cliff Enns donated his venue, The Yard, while Troy and Brook Skjerseth donated their tent, tables and chairs which transpired into a gorgeous space for an unforgettable Hoedown.
“The Hoedown is really to launch us into the next stage of Down Home," said volunteer and board member, Jill Waslaski. "Jenessa and Jake have a wonderful vision. It's very organized and specific; they need a full-time person running Down Home and they have plans for a mentorship program already in place. They've got God on their side and what they've been able to do in the last year is amazing."
These days, monetary donations are just as important as furnishings and decor. As their outreach and programs expand, their team is also expanding. The demands are high and hiring full time employees are inevitable to coordinate their programs and move-ins. Coordinating the Hoedown event at The Yard was one step forward to further spread the message of their work and reach their fundraising goals.
The First Gift
Down Home was officially established in November of 2017 and started with just Jenessa and Jacob Fillipi, Jenessa's mom, Charlene Kuznia, and her brother, Tyson Kuznia. The team would get the honor of serving their first family just before the new year, purchasing most of the needed items with their own funds and gathering furnishings from their personal homes to help transition the family from a shelter into a home. "It was December 23rd, and I think it was the best Christmas present we could have given ourselves," said Kuznia. "The recipient and her son were in tears which put all of us in tears; they were so humbled and so appreciative. At that point, we realized this was something we needed to keep moving on."
Their first project began as a smaller side project they initially thought would be confined to their family. With an outpouring of support from those around them, their small family project didn't take long to grow wings. Since then, they have acquired countless volunteers and donations throughout the community, allowing them to serve 11 other families. By the end of this year, they're on track to serve upwards of 20 families and expand their offerings.
Today, Down Home has a team of seven board members and 17 committee members and active volunteers. With each project, they garner more interest with new volunteers coming from churches, shelters, friends, family, corporations like Microsoft and organizations like the Fargo Invaders, all looking to give back to the community.
"I would have never imagined back in October of last year how the community would come together. I look at the fabulous furniture, decor, donations, the amazing volunteers that we currently have, and it's very evident that this is more than just Jake and myself, this is a community coming together to serve those that need that additional help," said Jenessa Fillipi. "Really, the sky's the limit; there are so many miracles that we've seen along the way that I know we would have missed, had we not taken that step forward in trusting this Down Home process that the Lord really has us on."
Stocking the Shelves
From their very first install to their 11th, a lot has changed for Down Home. They no longer work out of their own garages and basements; they've found an official home base in North Fargo, just off of 19th Avenue. This is where their team gathers, donations are collected and inventory is stocked, organized and ready for giving. High-quality furniture donations have been plentiful, but as their non-profit grows, so will their demand.
"Something that you don't need anymore might mean absolutely everything to another family," said volunteer marketing and development director, Chris Welsand. In the last one we did, everything they owned could fit inside one apartment closet. They came in with literally the clothes on their back and maybe a couple of bags."
The Down Home Process
To find Down Home's recipients, the team is connected with a number of homeless shelter agencies across the community. "If they see a family that they feel is ready to get back to the community, they will refer them to us and we connect and meet with the family. We get to know them and ask them about their likes and dislikes," explained Kuznia.
The day of the move-in and reveal, coordination of items take place in the warehouse, and a U-Haul is rented for the day. The Down Home team has learned to streamline their process by placing items into labeled boxes for each room so volunteers can easily grab a box and get to work. Loading of items takes about 30 minutes and within two hours, the team can completely transform an empty space into a comfortable home to embrace.
"The homes we're furnishing are homes that are just barely affordable for someone coming out of the shelter. When we first see the space, it can be frustrating," explained volunteer and board member, Jill Waslaski. "For one recipient, she was bringing a newborn baby home to this space and it made us all upset to see how much needed to be done to the building; but it was the middle of winter and it's what they could afford. By the time the team was done, we were shocked at how well it came together."
"It had turned into this amazing and cozy place and each of the kids had their own space to sleep, designed just for them," added Kuznia. "It was an amazing transformation."
"Down Home is intentional in the decor and furnishings that go into each empty space," said Jenessa Fillipi. "We put elements in every home that promote family time, self-worth and speak to our mission of empowerment. We incorporate inspirational quotes, a cross, soft pillows, blankets, games, books and devotionals into each home. It's so important to surround each client we serve with positive messages and purposeful pieces."
After the Move-In & Reveal
Part of the Down Home process is to follow up with the families they've served through their Pay it Forward plan. This gives them a chance to donate additional items or gather valuable feedback on how to improve their services and furniture selections, making sure each family has what they need to thrive.
This month, Down Home plans to begin phase two; their Empower Up program. "It's an opportunity for us to reach a larger group of people and it would benefit not only those who have experienced homelessness, but also those who are at risk for homelessness, but still currently live in a home," said Jenessa Fillipi.
To be part of the Empower Up program, recipients will still need a referral, but they will have the opportunity to participate in four weeks of empowerment training which is provided by Upstream growth consultants. After completing training at Down Home's office, the team will work with the recipient in finding out what additional pieces they need for their home. The program is currently full, but a waiting list has been started for the spring session. Find out how you can sponsor a recipient by going to the Empower Up link on their site.
"Thanks so much for everything! My home is super comfortable (for myself and newborn). I catch myself reading the quotes on the wall. It really works and helps me out."
Ready to Donate?
Monetary donations are a high priority right now as Down Home's demands are continually growing, as is the demand for more storage space. The team encourages sponsorship opportunities for businesses, families and church groups to provide volunteers and to be a part of the move-in process, regardless of ability or skill level. If you'd rather donate furnishings, before you make your haul, check out their current list of needs. Right now, the team is searching for the following high-quality items:
New mattresses (queen and twin), queen and twin headboards, metal bunk beds, small TV stands, end tables, matching lamps, inspirational quotes and decor.
A Humble Home
"What we provide for the families isn't possible without the entire community coming together and donating their furniture, time, their inspirational quotes, picture frames and everything else," said Jenessa Fillipi. "Jake and I feel very humbled that the Lord really placed Down Home on our hearts and yet, it's the entire community that he's calling to be a part of it in different ways."
For more information, contact:
Chris Welsand / Marketing & Development
Search their Site: down-home.org
View their video:
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