A South L.A. apartment gets the celebrity treatment

On a recent gray Saturday morning, 20 volunteers scurried up and down the stairs to a second-floor apartment in South Los Angeles.

One carried a painting, another juggled a bag of pillows and two others brought up the rear, balancing a glass-topped coffee table. It would take less than 90 minutes for volunteers from A Sense of Home, a Los Angeles-based charitable organization that helps former foster-care children furnish their first apartments, to turn empty interiors into homes.

Leading the small band of volunteers: A-list celebrity designer, author and “Top Design” TV judge Kelly Wearstler, known in Los Angeles circles for her glamorous interiors.

"When I heard about the work the charity was doing," she says, “I knew that I wanted to help… I wanted to create a place that was young and optimistic — a creative environment to inspire and nurture."

Throughout the makeover, Elana Frey sat outside in a red folding chair, pensive, waiting, oblivious to the Metro Expo Line train that streaked by on its way downtown. This was a day she'd been dreaming about her entire life.

Turning empty apartments into homes
Elana Frey awaits transformation of her empty apartment. Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

A year ago, Frey, 21, was living in a shelter with her 6-month-old son, Kalani. She hasn’t had many breaks. She said that she was abandoned shortly after birth and that she was later placed and out of in foster care. She has painful childhood memories of being beaten, and locked in closets, as a form of discipline. She ran away again and again as a teenager. At 18, the former foster child found herself on her own.

That's when — like nearly 25% of aged-out foster care youth — she ended up homeless.

Her homelessness lasted three years. During that time, she says she lost hope and fell prey to drugs. But she abruptly quit using drugs and sought help within a week of discovering she was pregnant. "I didn't want my son to end up like me… without a mom," says Frey. Once she had a permanent shelter address, she landed a job at as a cashier at a Ross store in Venice. (She now works at Starbucks, and hopes to become a nurse someday "so I can help people.")

Enter Georgie Smith and Melissa Goddard, who began A Sense of Home in 2014 after they helped a former foster youth decorate his empty apartment. Smith has since been honored as a CNN Hero for her life-altering work, and her work continues to gain attention: In honor of the organization’s 300th home makeover, A Sense of Home earned a $50,000 matching grant from the Los Angeles-based Jena & Michael King Foundation for the month of June: The foundation will match any donations to A Sense of Home, up to $50,000. (For information on the matching grant or furniture donations, go to A Sense of Home).

Turning empty apartments into homes
Elana Frey, holding her almost son Kalani, checks out her freshly decorated living room. Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

To qualify for help, A Sense of Home requires three things from the former foster kids: They have to have apartments, be either in school or working, and they must "pay it forward," helping as part of the team to create another youth's home. "The goal," says Smith, "is to give them a sense of community, a place to thrive, as well as offer networking opportunities."

With requests for up to 120 places a year, it's difficult for the foundation to keep up with the demand.

Smith and Goddard frequently shop at Ross near their Venice home when donated furnishings run low. Frey, who was still working at Ross at the time, became curious as to why they were coming in so often and buying so much, and struck up a conversation. "She couldn't believe it when we explained that we were buying all these items for aged-out foster youth to help with their first home," says Goddard. "She shared her story with us. We kept in touch."

A Sense of Home was featured in a music video from Irish band The Script for their single "Arms Open."

And then they put together a plan for Frey’s place.

Wearstler is the first in the charity’s new Design Challenge Program, where once a month, designers decorate a home with their own items, sometimes with the help of a furnishings company. The charity supplies the rest, says Smith, adding that they are in constant need of "gently used" donated furnishings. Frey’s apartment makeover was additionally underwritten by the L.A.-based Brotman Foundation, which is dedicated to helping children, and supporting health and medical research.

Turning empty apartments into homes
Designer Kelly Wearstler adds a piece to the bedroom of Elana Frey's young son. Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

In a short time, Wearstler had transformed Frey’s apartment with a sophisticated mix of contemporary furnishings in a graphic palette of black, white, beige and gold. Wearstler selected items from her Melrose Avenue showroom as well as her home.

A colorful sculpture, now in baby Kalani's room, was once in Wearstler’s sons' bedroom. There was also a new set of dishes in the kitchen, fresh towels and beauty products in the bathroom, and small welcome gifts left by volunteers — a bouquet of red roses, a jar of honey, and a dozen cupcakes baked by a former recipient, all examples of the pay-it-forward nature of A Sense of Home.

Frey entered as volunteers seated on the floor sang out, "Welcome to your new home, Elana!" She walked through the apartment holding her young son, tears welling up, for the moment unable to speak. She stopped at the threshold of her bedroom. A low-slung California king bed sat front and center, dressed in a linen comforter and a cashmere throw. She lay down with her son on the bed.

Turning empty apartments into homes
Elana Frey, overwhelmed by emotions, cuddles her 1 1/2-year-old son, Kalani, on her new bed. Frey had been sleeping on the floor, as she couldn't afford any furniture. Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

"For some people, their idea of nice is an iPhone," says Frey. "For me, it's a warm blanket and a safe place to sleep for me and my son… I am so thankful."