Restoring Things, Renewing Lives

By Cliff Hakim

The Restoration Project in Belmont, Massachusetts. Photo by Cliff Hakim

When I was twelve, we moved into a custom home—a Cape Cod with cedar shingles that was largely designed and curated by my mother.  Our front steps were made of repurposed granite she had spotted on a visit to an apple farm; the chimney and the walkways were of reclaimed brick she had rescued from a junkyard.  The living room fireplace was an exact replica of one displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  Mom had painstakingly measured and photographed the mantel, then drawn up the plans. Lastly, there was an antique Spanish lantern she had purchased at a Boston antique shop.  We sold the family home many years ago and this charming fixture now hangs in my foyer.

My mother was ahead of her time, with her artistic eye and passion for the “hunt” and her ability to find, repurpose, and restore things.  She fashioned a unique home, over fifty years ago. Today, reclaiming estates, and using older things from roadside giveaways, thrift shops, and salvage barns and shops has become the way to go.  Second hand shops and salvage yards are now booming businesses, and a designer’s paradise!  Some family members thought my Mom was odd: Why use old bricks, when you can buy perfect, new ones for less money? But she pressed on, creating rooms that mirrored her artistic spirit and vision.

I caught the same bug, and six years ago, I founded a business called Inspired Stones, using reclaimed stone to make indoor and outdoor benches, tables, and sculpture. In recent years, I have also built a custom home with my wife, Amy, and we have repurposed many of its elements.  Our home has a granite veneer foundation and a fossilized stone fireplace mantel from a family-owned quarry in northern Massachusetts, a sunroom illumined by Boston street lamps, and a nine-foot front door reclaimed from a New Orleans style mansion on Cape Cod, that we boldly painted marigold.  I put in nearly eighty hours refurbishing that door, removing three layers of paint, putting on two coats of primer, and two layers of high-gloss finish, after replacing all the glass and mullions. Every time I touch the handle, I think about its long history.   

Restoring and repurposing things has given me a deep sense of place. When I walk into any room, these elements evoke pleasant memories and exciting adventures — where I found this or that, or how I restored a particular object — to be shared with family and friends.

 

My interest in R & R (restoring and repurposing) along with my prior experience as an executive coach, led me to volunteer at the Restoration Project, a Belmont, Massachusetts, non-profit.  Founded by Eloise Newell, RP is both a retail shop and vocational rehabilitation program for adolescents and adults with emotional and neurological challenges. “Our participants learn the trades of furniture restoration and retailing to build confidence and develop work skills that are transferable to any occupation,” Eloise says. “Furniture is part of our everyday lives. When we revitalize a worn piece of furniture, we do something meaningful and empower ourselves.”

Stevie, one of the RP participants, talks about the way repair work is helping him to build a life.  “I stay occupied in this program and look forward to being here, as opposed to in a group home.” He says. “This is home. I enjoy working with others and with my hands. I am most compatible with wood — sanding and refinishing; the activity keeps me focused and grounded.” After Stevie shared these thoughts, he went back to refinishing a side table.

 

How does the nonprofit work? Individuals and estates donate furniture, upholstered goods, and household items, and because there are so many boomers, there is an abundance of unique and gently worn things. 

Restoration Project is an award-winning vocational rehabilitation program offering adolescents and adults with mental illnesses and brain injuries transitional employment while facilitating their integration in the community.

 “We are of value to the town,” Eloise explains, “because we provide an outlet for people who care for their things and want to see them restored and passed on to a good home. Our donors feel they are contributing to a good cause and so do our buyers. And we are adding meaning to the lives of our workers.” 

As people age, they downsize and don’t have room for their possessions.  Donations also come when a family moves.  “These pieces of furniture hold memories for their owners,” Eloise says. “So we take the time to listen to their stories. They are comforted knowing that their things will go to a good home.”

Those who work at Restoration Project also feel a sense of hope and renewal.  As Carolyn explained, “Restoration Project saved my life. I was unhappy in my former job sitting all day in a cubicle and feeling disconnected. Upholstering, using my hands, has helped me work through my anxiety. Here I have people I like, and a tangible sense of productivity.  My project is upholstering seat cushions for a private customer. I have never upholstered anything before, but I have a good, precise teacher who is helping me find self-confidence.”

Photo courtesy of The Renovation Project

A Common Purpose

RP offers an abundance of quality goods at fair prices and it also provides a sense of community for the locals. On any given day a shopper might run into a friend or neighbor who is also on the hunt, and many people come a few times a week to see what’s new or compare their latest finds. “Stickiness,” is a term I use to describe people sharing a common purpose.  RP has that with its customers and its workers.  It’s largely a result of Eloise’s walking-about management, her welcoming smile, and her ability to describe the skills of her students, volunteers, and staff. Eloise explains, “We selected the name Restoration Project for all of its nuances – our work is both restoring people and restoring furniture.”

This “stickiness” or sense of common purpose, extends beyond the retail shop and into the classroom environment. Carolyn said, “Even on my days off, I want to be here. Before I was working out of fear, trying to impress my boss. Now, I can ask questions, learn, and produce something that makes me feel proud

Repairing and repurposing things may look simple, but it’s no small task to restore something that has been well used.  Items that come into RP must be sorted, cleaned, and then displayed. Most furniture requires polishing, reupholstering or repair, from crafting and replacing a spindle or leg to resurfacing.  

To keep the Restoration Project going, Eloise draws on her natural “stubbornness” and her own resilience.   “My son died from mental illness,” she explained as I got to know her better. “I wanted to honor him by doing something good for others. Through the Restoration Project, I learned to live in the moment. Working for people not money also makes me happy.”

Restoration Project gives both things and people a new life.   As my mother knew, we should always honor the patina––the marks of aging and of living.  This is what makes a soulful home, and contributes to the well-lived life. 


Cliff Hakim is an artisan and founder of Inspired Stones. He has also worked  as a career consultant, guiding people through work-life transitions. He is the author of the business best seller, We Are All Self-Employed.

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