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Humboldt Park family’s home transformed: ‘I feel happy’

Laveta Brigham

The house Lana Purnell and her three children left Friday morning wasn’t the same when they returned in the early afternoon. The address and the red door were the same. But inside, the-first floor apartment where she’d been living with Julius, 16, Johnny, 10, and Victoria, 6, was wholly different. […]

The house Lana Purnell and her three children left Friday morning wasn’t the same when they returned in the early afternoon.

The address and the red door were the same. But inside, the-first floor apartment where she’d been living with Julius, 16, Johnny, 10, and Victoria, 6, was wholly different.

Before, as Purnell put it: “Imagine a home with a few air mattresses and a few cups and bowls. That’s what we’ve been living off of.”

But now, family photos hang on the walls. There are tables in both the kitchen and dining room, plus a couch and a coffee table in the living room. And in the bedrooms? Actual beds.

“We’re happy. I feel happy,” Johnny said, walking around the newly furnished home.

Lana Purnell checks out her newly furnished bedroom with her daughter Victoria.

Lana Purnell checks out her newly furnished bedroom with her daughter Victoria.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The home, in the 2600 block of Evergreen Avenue in Humboldt Park, had been transformed in five hours by 11 volunteers with Dialexa, an IBM company, and Humble Design, a nonprofit that helps families in affordable housing make their spaces their own. The group has transformed close to 600 homes in Chicago since 2017. This was the 108th home the volunteers and nonprofit have worked on this year.

A week before, the process began when a designer volunteering for the nonprofit met the family to ask what they wanted for their home. They needed pretty much everything, Purnell said.

The family moved in last month, but couldn’t afford to furnish their place. Without a table or chairs, they ate seated on the floor. At bedtime, they shared two air mattresses — girls on one, boys on another.

After years of living with friends and waiting on a Section 8 housing voucher since before Victoria was born, they felt lucky to have a spot, especially close to the children’s schools and Purnell’s job in Wicker Park, where she helps run the kitchen at Dimo’s Pizza.

But hawking slices doesn’t leave much dough for furnishing a four-bedroom apartment.

“I finally found a stable house. The only problem was, I didn’t have any furniture to put in it,” Purnell said.

Humble Design director Julie Dickinson estimated it put close to $14,000 into the house, not counting the cost of moving or time involved. Such cases are why the nonprofit exists.

“A lot of the clients we work with will have gotten housing, but they don’t even stay there because they don’t have furniture,” Dickinson said.

Johnny, Lana Purnell’s youngest son, peeks into his new bedroom.

Johnny, Lana Purnell’s youngest son, peeks into his new bedroom.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Each room had its own style.

“Oh, that looks so cool,” Victoria said, looking into Johnny’s room. A Spiderman comforter was on the bed; a Spiderman decal was above it on a wall. Johnny, who’s in fourth grade, entered with his jaw on the floor.

Julius’ room was more appropriate for a high school junior. He had a study desk, and on the dresser, a basketball signed by a Chicago Bull. There was one for Johnny, too.

“This is awesome,” a smiling Julius said, looking around his room.

Running to Victoria’s room, Johnny called toward his sister. “Vic, close your eyes,” he said.

But the first-grader couldn’t help herself. Eyes open, she ran into the room, grabbing a blue stuffed octopus on the bed. There also was the toy castle she had specifically requested, designer Shay Nothstine said. All the items were donated to the nonprofit.

Purnell had requested something elegant and peaceful for her room, Nothstine said, but the peace was happily broken when her two youngest collapsed on the bed with her.

Victoria Walker lays on her new bed in her new bedroom.

Victoria relaxes in her newly furnished bedroom.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Also there for the unveiling was Purnell’s friend April Harris. It was through their serendipitous friendship that the transformation was initiated.

The two met last year after their boys bonded at a park. Later, it turned out, Harris was an organizer with Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and familiar with Humble Design.

When Purnell’s Section 8 voucher arrived, Harris helped Purnell sign up right away.

“This brought tears to my eyes,” Harris said, “just to see the joy in the kids’ eyes and to know that they won’t have to want for anything.”

Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.

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