Many of the homeless teens who come to Denver’s Third Way Center residences arrive with all their earthly belongings in black garbage bags. Generally, clients of Duet Design Group—a local interior design firm—live in places like Cherry Creek and carry bags of a different sort. But that didn’t stop Duet principals Devon Tobin and Miranda Cullen from sharing their expertise on a very special Third Way Center project: a complete renovation of a 500-square-foot, one-bedroom transitional apartment.
“From the very beginning of our partnership, we knew we wanted to be able to show the world that good design doesn’t have to equate to luxury,” Tobin says. “Everybody deserves good design. It shouldn’t only be the rich who get it.”
Third Way Center, a Denver-based nonprofit, provides treatment and resources for homeless teens in a residential setting. Founded in 1970, Third Way offers mental health treatment, job skills training, and life skills support to teenagers in the most dire of situations. Often, this is the last stop for these kids, who range from 14 to 18 years old and have suffered abuse, neglect, or addiction. With 10 facilities throughout metro Denver, Third Way houses about 250 people annually.
The residents (who stay in Third Way housing for about three to six months, on average) cook and clean for themselves and attend high school and therapy sessions on-site. But the budget is tight, and that means one part-time maintenance employee manages upkeep on all the buildings. “There’s no fat in the budget,” says Jan Hubert, chief development officer for Third Way Center. “There’s not a lot of money for renovations.”
Thankfully, the founding team at Duet was looking to contribute to the community in a bigger way with its recently created nonprofit arm, the Duet Design Group Foundation. (Its mission statement reads, in part: “[The foundation] seeks to improve the lives of residents of the Denver area who are unable to take advantage of professional design services by creating healing and soothing environments that would otherwise not be available to such individuals.”)
Third Way Center’s mission resonated with Duet. And when Tobin and Cullen toured the facility, Tobin, a mom herself, was brought to tears. “I asked Jan, ‘How can anyone heal in an environment like this?’” Tobin says. “She told me, ‘They don’t know any differently.’”
The design philosophy for the first step of the partnership, the renovation of a single apartment in a 20-unit Third Way building, came quickly to the Duet team: clean, safe, and comfortable. Third Way was cautious about appearing too luxurious, and ease of maintenance was a top concern. Duet would donate its time and hire trusted vendors (such as C4 Ltd.), but they wanted to bid the project without favors to accurately gauge how much funding would be required to renovate the rest of the building. The costs for new paint and flooring, a redesigned bathroom, and updating the furniture, window treatments, and appliances came to $45,000 per apartment.
Most of the funding for the first unit came from an unlikely source—sweat—when Third Way received $43,000 as the designated nonprofit of the team that won Community Banks of Colorado’s “Do More Charity Challenge” Crossfit competition this past fall. “It’s an incredible organization,” says Patrick Sobers, executive vice president of consumer and small business banking for Community Banks of Colorado. “And to see what they did with the money is amazing.”
Using Home Depot fixtures, ivory paint, planked vinyl flooring, and thermofoil cabinets, Duet transformed the dark, dated apartment into a modern oasis. Durable furniture, sourced from a dormitory supplier, means the pieces are designed with teenage wear and tear in mind. Accessories and linens, all from traditional retailers, round out the room.
“These kids have experienced horrific stuff, things we couldn’t even imagine,” Hubert says. “For them to move into a beautiful place—to see it’s attainable—I think that’s one of the kindest things ever given to them.”
With 19 more Third Way units on tap, the Duet Design Group Foundation plans to raise $1 million for renovations and a long-term maintenance fund. By doing the remaining apartments in small groups, Duet hopes bigger buying power will garnish discounts. The firm is also encouraging vendors and even other designers to see the value in joining the project.
“We hope to build momentum with this project,” Tobin says. “We want people to see these kids are worth it. We really can change the way these kids feel about themselves just by making their rooms nicer.”
GET INVOLVED: Third Way Center’s Young Professionals Board and Duet Design Group Foundation will host a fund-raiser for the project on March 3, from 6 to 9 p.m. at RedLine Denver. Tickets are $50 each and available at thirdwaycenter.org. Individuals interested in contributing to Third Way Center’s renovations can contact email@example.com.