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Before and AfterInspiration for the Day

A Happy Ending for Youth Unlimited: Before & After

Irene Hill is a very special person. Not only is Irene the editor of my eBooks, which means she takes all my “mad scientist” complicated ideas about undertones and colour and puts them in the right order, but she also works tirelessly at Youth Unlimited as a Development Officer helping to raise funds for the charity.

Irene and I are updating my first eBook (when it’s updated, all of you who already have a copy will automatically get the revised version) and during our meetings, she’ll say things like, “Talk to me about Clean and Dirty colours.” After I respond, she’ll often say things like, “That’s genius, but you said the same thing last time I asked you and by the way, that fits in perfectly in chapter seven, but people aren’t ready to hear that explanation in chapter two.”

My eBooks make sense to the novice learning about colour because Irene makes sure that they do.

This is a guest post by Irene about the renovation of the Youth Unlimited offices which she took on this past summer and if you feel so moved, a plea for donations for this wonderful charity:

Irene Hill (Styled by Maria Killam)

“Like many cities around North America, Vancouver has its share of at-risk and vulnerable youth. Teenagers and young adults, who, for a variety of reasons, fall through the cracks in our society and find themselves alone and without the support so many of us take for granted.

Young teens like 12-year-old Sarah* who hid the drugs she carried as a drug mule in a cute pink backpack as she openly walked up and down the downtown eastside streets of the city.Teens like James,* struggling through his sophomore year at high school as he lived in a crack house, abandoned by his parents due to their addiction, mental illness and criminal behaviour.

Teens like Anna* who was so badly bullied during her ninth grade year that, driven by rage and depression, she styled herself after the Columbine shooters and determined to get her revenge on her tormentors.Young teens like 13-year-old Lyle* who regularly skips school and spends his days drinking and getting high, so he can wander the streets at night fuelled by booze and a sense of invincibility.

The stories can go on and on. You know this, it happens in your towns and cities too. Stories that break your hearts and make you want to take these kids in and offer a different ending to their story.

Along with writing for Maria, I also spend time with Youth Unlimited, a grass-roots charity working with vulnerable and at-risk youth across Greater Vancouver. Our focus are the ones falling through the cracks — whether it’s mental illness/bullying issues on the North Shore, gang pressure + sex-trafficking recruitment in the Valley or homelessness and addiction issues in East Vancouver, we have specialized programs and caring youth workers working tirelessly to help these kids change the trajectory of their lives.

When I first started working with YU a few short years ago, I was overwhelmed by the many, many stories I heard like the few I wrote about above. The only saving grace from days of tears was in meeting the 80+ youth staff that go out and find these kids. To my astonishment, these youth workers would go find vulnerable kids and meet them where they were. Wherever and whenever.

The wall of Youth Unlimited staff

They go before school starts to provide breakfasts for kids who wouldn’t otherwise eat the most important meal of the day. They are available during the day and after school hours. They give up their evenings to have coffee with and listen to whatever these youth needed to say. They answer a desperate call in the middle of the night when a young girl is caught in a party the Hells’ Angels overrun and go get her.

I think that’s the heart of YU. They go get kids who don’t make it onto anyone else’s watch list. The ones who slip through all the best-intentioned government systems and find themselves hungry and lonely and lost. They feed them; they walk alongside them and help them start to find themselves.

The day the 80s furniture left the office!

Since 2001 the central office that houses the administration and leadership of this organization has been in an 80s time warp. Already dated when they moved in, the building gloried in burgundy, forest green and rose pink and was furnished with a mishmash of second-hand furniture.

Everyone happily focused on the important work of helping youth until early this summer when a generous donor came to our rescue and gave us a small budget of $30,000 to renovate and refurnish 5,000 square feet.

Having worked so closely with Maria for these past years, I feel an incredible sense of confidence in the colour, hard finishes and furnishing choices that need to be made. So I nominated myself the head of this renovation and channeled Maria. Every day.

Once the big pieces were in place, Ikea was the place to shop for the office furniture. I’m so impressed with the quality of their products and, for our office, they hit exactly the right note. Everyone got small Alex storage and file cabinets along with Linnmon tabletops and silver Adils legs.

Mark Koop

Except for our hardworking and amazing Executive Director, Mark (above). I was determined that his office (below) would look appropriate to his role and reflect his passion for, and history with working with at-risk youth through skateboarding programs.

Thanks to Craigslist, Crated Furniture, HomeSense and his personally crafted skateboard bookshelves, it totally does (below).

And at exactly the time my budget was spent, in waltzed the generosity of our lovely Maria. She wanted to see what I had been working on and offered to help with displaying art from our Creative Life art program on the walls and adding “the pretty.” Which no one does better.

She came in as her usual whirlwind and we laughed, made decorating decisions and she shopped until the office looks like it does now. Up till then, it was fully functional and oh, so much better, but with a touch of Maria’s genius, the office is now an expression of our values and mission — to make life better for everyone we come into contact with. Every day.

Back to the office renovation, but before we get to how bad it really was, here is a Before and After of Maria’s styling touches. I know we should really start with the pain of the ugly, but I wanted to give you a pre-taste of the glory:

These were the pillows that came with the furniture. After we installed this large piece of art (painted at Creative Life), that could go nowhere else, Maria moved the pillows into Mark’s office where they work better with his less busy artwork and brought a soft pink plaid pillow along with a fuzzy oblong one to relate with the artwork.

Relate. That’s the key word when you are creating a look and a feel.

The soft glow of the new table lamp warms up the waiting area.

At the beginning of this summer, we ripped out unnecessary walls, eliminated the horrible mixture of burgundy, rose pink, grey and impossible-to-identify-the undertone carpet throughout, painted over chocolate brown, steel blue, pink beige, burgundy and a variety of other highly “out” colours and gave away endless banks of dark cherry-coloured cabinets. Along with a dinosaur reception desk and a pink bar sink. Really?!? What were they thinking?

It was such a relief to see the removal of these sad, worn down and beat up finishes. Just getting to that point was so much better.

And then the real fun began. I turned every penny over three times and started to invest the donated budget in replacing the finishes and dreaming of replacing every furnishing. As you can imagine, money went quickly.

But, by the end of the summer, with lots and lots of volunteer help and understanding vendors, we had a beautiful and much more functional office space. One where our staff workers looked forward to coming to and our admin and leadership team were able to work more effectively and comfortably.

We went from burgundy, rose pink, grey and very bad carpet to navy carpet tiles. The navy carpet tiles even took the impossible-to-remove river of pink floor tiles in the reception area and minimized their “pinkiness” because the contrast between the dark carpet tiles and the light pink floor was so much stronger now.

We went from chocolate brown, steel blue, pink beige, burgundy and a variety of other highly “out” wall colours to the soothing colour of HC-173 Edgecomb Gray throughout.

Our Office Manager, Gloria, in her beautiful new office

Ikea flat-pack cabinets in Grimslov off-white Shaker style were a blessed replacement for the dark cherry particleboard cabinets. Ikea even had an incredible sale on their Karlby oak countertops (above) and they warmed up the new cabinets.

A custom-made reception desk was built around several of Ikea’s Linnmon tabletops with silver Adils legs.

Our receptionist, Shari, ready to greet you.

A mill cheerfully donated the wood for the reception desk surround when they heard what I wanted to use it for.

And a small saw mill that provided the live edge reception desk bar also gave us a smokin’ deal.

Maria organized our stash of 40 pieces of artwork made at Creative Life on the floor, while Dean, our Director of Support Services, took a quick rest to recover from the whirlwind of activity she generated in the office.

She grouped the art pieces by colour (of course) and worked to find ways to make a lot of little pieces look good together!

Here’s the blank and boring bathroom corner before the art transformation:

After an infusion of art

This is the Elevation Project room where we partner with our sister organization in Rwanda, What does a struggling youth from North America have in common with a teen living in poverty in the developing world? More than you can imagine. While they share deep challenges beyond what many others face, they also share hope and potential to live life to the full. They need support but both have much to give each other, and the rest of the world.

The office was much better with its new IKEA furniture but missing personality until now:

And this is the sitting area in our kitchen/eating area:

The best place for this large piece of art was this room but the colours didn’t tie in with the turquoise area rug and blue sofa so Maria created some magic with throw pillows from HomeSense (can you hear her whisper “Relate! It needs to relate!”).

Home decor items and accessories donated and styled by Maria Killam

Photography by Barry Calhoun Photography

A special and huge thanks to Maria’s photographer Barry Calhoun who also donated his time to shoot the after photos for this project! She caught him in a photo last summer, shooting one of her projects! (above).

Oh, and the kids’ stories you read about at the beginning of this post? Sarah, James, Anna and Lyle?

Sarah* found her way to Street Life, one of our mobile drop-in centres. Street Life runs out of a RV that provides hot meals, shelter from the weather and staff who listen to her story and care for her in practical and relational ways. Sarah is now 16 years old, has left drug trafficking behind and is heavily involved in Creative Life, one of our arts programs She keeps close to her YU mentors and is on the right life track.

James*’ family is still, for the most part, involved in criminal activity with almost every male relative having spent and currently spending time in prison, has moved out of the crack house and graduated from high school. His YU mentor has been an anchor for him as he navigates his way to adulthood.

Anna* was arrested and given probation that included attending a mandatory club at her alternative school. She walked into an afterschool cooking club run by YU and walked into a new life. She made a 180-degree life-direction change and is now graduated and in post-secondary school to become a teacher.

Lyle*’s story is still relatively new. The streets are still his home, but he also considers the YU mobile drop-in centre a piece of home life and the staff there a kind of family.

*Not their real names.

These four small stories represent only a fraction of the many, many at-risk youth we come into contact with every day. Our staff, along with 250+ volunteers, helps, support and are in contact with over 23,000 youth at this time and, unbelievably, they know many, many of them personally. Last year we served 46,997 meals in seven innovative drop-in centers (three mobile and four stationary).”

This is Maria writing again. Charities like Youth Unlimited operate almost solely on donations given by people with big hearts who see the daily needs in the world around them and decide to share what they have.

If this has tugged on your heartstrings and you want to contribute to this work, you can visit Youth Unlimited here. Please type Maria Killam in box (as shown above) so we can track the donations of my wonderful and generous readers!

Or, you can find a charity that does similar work in your town and give them a gift that will help them in their work.


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  • Karen Jacobsma says:

    Beautifully written piece by Irene about Youth Unlimited. Sounds like an amazing program perfectly designed to meet unique and heartbreaking needs of youth. May God bless and multiply the efforts of all involved.

  • Lorri says:

    It not only looks so much better, it looks so much happier and hopeful. 🙂

    What a great group of people too. So many fall through the cracks with no where to go unless Earth angels show up.

  • Shelly says:

    My husband and I are planning to build a house sometime in the next year or so if we can secure a bit of ground. I was planning to hire you to walk me through all those decisions. But I live near Nashville Tennessee. If I take your class will I be equipped to make those decisions myself? I’m so excited that you are coming to Nadhville. I have loved reading your blog and my sense of color is gradually improving. Please advise.

    • Maria Killam says:

      Frankly I would do both. There are so many decisions you will make when building a house, it would be so easy to spend $2000 on the wrong colour or simply on the wrong purchase. You will learn the foundation of my system which will help you every time you need to say “white or cream, green grey or green beige”, etc etc. And not only will you learn the system of colour it’s all built on decorating, because you can’t be a successful colourist without knowing how to pull a room together with colour as well.
      Hope that helps!

  • Norine says:

    I cannot make “Donate Today” work.

  • Norine says:

    PS listened to Maria in the Ballard interview – she was so charming and soft-spoken. . . and her message was consistent with all the blog posts.

  • Mary-Illinois says:

    Irene, thank you for all the work you do with some of society’s forgotten children. They need all the help they can get. Knowing of stories like the ones you’ve witnessed, make realize & appreciate how fortunate we are.
    Maria, You made the kids & the people that work there know that they are important. The new surroundings are sure to brighten their day.

  • Lucy says:

    Such a well written post Irene and so inspiring at this time of the year! We all get so wrapped up in our own lives that we don’t either know or realize that there are so many lost souls out there. Your organization is God send! Keep up the good work. It is gratifing just to know that you have changed even a few lives!

  • Mid America Mom says:

    Your city is blessed to have such support! Thank you for giving back to your community. I am in the US. Before I attempt to do a one time donation – being in the US – 1. will I have issues doing this as I have a US address and 2. would it be done in US funds? Thanks!

    • Maria Killam says:

      Whatever you donate will just convert to Canadian dollars on your credit card so it shouldn’t be a problem! Thanks so much we appreciate your donation! x Maria

  • Fun post! Is it just a coincidence that EVERYONE (except Mark) looks like you?!!! LOL!

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