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Spreading hope by transforming living spaces

Dionne Williamson has seen, time and time again, the power and joy that a safe, comfortable home can give to those who need it the most. A woman, who finally feels at home, is moved to tears by seeing her kitchen cabinets stocked with dishes and glassware. A child beams from ear to ear because she finally has her own bedroom after living in a homeless shelter. Less stressed, a mother can focus on her children because her house is well-furnished and secure.

“Everyone deserves a nice home,” Williamson said. “When you come home, your place should welcome you—it should say, ‘Welcome home. You’ve had a rough day, now you can kick your feet up for a while.’”

Williamson is the founder of Upward Design for Life, a nonprofit that provides new and gently used furnishings to individuals and families who are transitioning into their own residence and need assistance with basic essentials. All of her clients are referred by partner agencies, including the Family Justice Center, Child & Family Services, Erie County Social Services and Buffalo City Mission. Often, they have been recently homeless or are domestic violence survivors.

“We all need help from time to time,” said Williamson, a certified interior design consultant who spends her day as the national sales director for Visit Buffalo Niagara. “This is not going to answer all of their prayers or solve all of their problems, but it’s one piece to say, ‘Hey, you don’t have to worry about this. Let us do this for you.’”

Upward Design for Life launched in January 2018 and, as of October, had completed 13 projects, relying solely on volunteers, monetary contributions and donations of furniture, decor or other services. In-kind partners, like the Buffalo Museum of Science and Hyatt Regency, have also stepped up by donating complimentary admission and hotel stays for the family to enjoy during their installation.

This fall, the organization moved into a 2,000-square-foot warehouse space that will allow it to support more clients—a huge boost from its previous 12-by-10-foot storage unit.

“It’s not just giving them a table and a sofa,” Williamson said. “When you have those extra things donated—pictures on the wall, flowers and plants, things that make it inviting—and we can put it all together, it gives people a new sense of dignity.”

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