A young woman, living in Chapel Hill's HomeStart shelter, had folded a tissue on the ground next to her bed. On it, carefully, she had placed her medication to be taken at night. She had no bedside table, so she had no choice but to do this. In fact, there was no furniture in the room other than several stark wireframe beds.
This woman's was one of the first rooms Lotta Sjoelin encountered in HomeStart after a friend had recommended she visit in 2014. The friend said the shelter needed pillows; Lotta, an interior designer, loaded her car with pillows and headed out.
Once there, she realized things were worse than she could have imagined. Women and children were living in almost prison-like conditions. Rooms were bleak and lacked even basics. Children played with items from the trash.
"I went home that night and cried. And the next day, I started planning and shopping and I went back to see what more I could do," says Lotta.
By December of that year, every room in the shelter had been re-decorated by Lotta and volunteer friends. A Lotta Love was born. In partnership with the not-for-profit Inter-Faith Council for Social Services (IFC), the vision became to work with shelters across North Carolina and transform spaces in order to help transform lives
A New Perspective
Born and raised in Sweden, Lotta owned and operated a successful interior design sales business in Europe before her husband's career brought the family to the United States. When Lotta was seven months pregnant with her third child and just three months after arriving in the US, her mother passed away from breast cancer. The loss changed her life.
"It gave me perspective and made me realize what was important and what is not. In many ways, it was an impetus for me to work toward something greater," says Lotta.
Not long after A Lotta Love was founded, family, friends and local companies started to regularly donate items and money to the cause. Churches, schools, sororities and businesses began volunteering their time to help with the renovations. Today the organization has four new chapters working alongside A Lotta Love (Charlotte, Raleigh, Chatham and Wake Forest), supporting more than a dozen shelters and rescue missions around the area.
A Lotta Love has matured beyond re-decorating rooms, taking an integrated approach with shelter partnerships. Today, the organization encourages shelters to meet certain criteria -- such as teaching life skills and organizational habits -- that will help their residents achieve long-term success. The group is also implementing surveys and conducting research to understand both the spectrum of needs that must be met as well as how their work is helping residents.
Re-modeling is also getting more ambitious. The group has received several grants used to rebuild playgrounds, renovate dining rooms, plant gardens, and create classrooms for children. The Wake Forest Chapter, the first chapter of A Lotta Love to open, is currently seeking corporate sponsors with which to partner to renovate several kitchens and bathrooms inside a Raleigh domestic violence shelter.
When asked to comment on the project that has moved her more than any other, Lotta has a hard time choosing. All of the work has been fulfilling beyond measure, she says. However, their work for the Wren House, an area shelter serving children 10-17 years old, is particularly close to her heart.
"Many of the women are living in cars. They drop their children at the home for the night so their kids have beds to sleep in. As a mother, I thought about how scary it would be to drop my child off in a place full of strangers, and how much worse that feeling must be if that place is decrepit and unwelcoming."
"We were able to re-decorate the whole residence, thanks to a grant from the Women's Giving Network of Wake County, and generous donations from the community -- from the contractors who donated their time and materials to the local artists who created beautiful works for the walls. The children now have a room where they can do homework, a kitchen where they cook together, a dining room where they enjoy family style dinners...a home away from home."