Volunteer interior designers will plan and execute the youth shelter’s renovation; suppliers and contractors will donate materials, labor and furniture.

Walker’s Point Youth and Family Center has been providing sanctuary for vulnerable youths in a century-old home just off of National Avenue for nearly three decades.

While the center just completed a renovation project to bring the kitchen, intake area and administrative space on the center’s first floor into this century, the upstairs space looks its age. 

A youth bedroom at the Walker’s Point Youth and Family Center. Photo by Audra Johnson

The center’s residents – it can house as many as eight youths – live, sleep, do homework and participate in group therapy sessions in a space cluttered with worn, mismatched furniture and overloaded bookshelves atop ragtag carpeting. A random filing cabinet occupies one corner; a pattern of holes in the wall marks where a phone or some other fixture was removed years ago.

That many teenagers wearing on the relatively small space takes its toll, noted Audra O’Connell, the center’s executive director. “When we started talking about this, we asked, ‘Is this a place where we’d want our kids to come?’ It was a resounding no,” O’Connell says. “This is the place (in the center) where they should be feeling really comfortable.” 

Design for a Difference, a national movement that provides a professional makeover of local nonprofits’ spaces free of charge, is stepping in to make that happen. The initiative, spearheaded locally by FLOOR360, has selected Walker’s Point Youth and Family Center as its first recipient in the Milwaukee area. Over the next three months or so, a volunteer team of designers will work with suppliers, installers, painters and other volunteers to plan and execute the renovation using donated furniture and materials.

Since 2015, Design for a Difference has completed four projects in the Madison area with a total value of $1.5 million, according to Floor360, which has an office in Madison that coordinated the efforts there. Milwaukee Magazine is a partner in Design for a Difference-Milwaukee, and a staff member participated in the selection of Walker’s Point as the 2019 recipient.

Audra O’Connell, executive director of Walker’s Point Youth and Family Center, and Ryan Miller, director of housing and crisis services, talks with Kelly Kuenn, FLOOR360 Milwaukee Kashou Design Studio manager. Photo by Audra Johnson

The effort there began in earnest on Tuesday when, following a short tour of the center, the Design for a Difference team broke the news to O’Connell and housing and crisis services director Ryan Miller that they’d been selected. Gratitude flowed forth in both directions, and Floor360 team members immediately began taking measurements of the space. 

Miller and O’Connell said the center would like to make the living space more inviting and trauma-informed for youths in crisis or transitioning out of homelessness, offering the feel of an actual home, or perhaps a hotel. Above all, the center seeks to provide its critical services in a place that respects the dignity of the young people receiving them.

“This is for the kids,” O’Connell says, “and that’s what’s most important.”

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