With one random act of kindness, Georgie Smith and Melissa Goddard’s lives were changed forever. What led these independent filmmakers to become aged-out foster youth warriors, with the creation of A Sense of Home, the non-profit that is now the focus of their lives? In a recent conversation with Aspire editor Gayle Jo Carter, these Los Angeles based Trailblazers shared with us the details of this awe-inspiring journey, why curtain rods and kitchen tables are important and how they won’t rest until young people all across the world know they matter. Excerpts below:
Q. Tell us about this life changing ‘Random Act of Kindness…’
Georgie: “I wouldn’t call myself a designer nor a chef but others do. Neither were my chosen profession, but I have always been asked to design homes, rooms, backyards and cater any event I design. It has always been something on the side. Friends implored me to start a blog to share recipes and designs and then came calls for video instructions. The head of the Cooking Channel saw the first video and asked my spouse Melissa to film me at all the occasions I was cooking for, which inevitably included designing a space. The third video was posted on social media and shared by the founder of a nonprofit where Melissa and I were volunteering. We were volunteering to get educated about the foster care system because we were pursuing adoption. We were doing hands-on volunteering at this nonprofit, when a young man reached out to the founder after she posted the design (and cooking) video and asked, ‘Can she help me?’
Melissa and I both went to visit him at his ‘home’. He had a Section 8 apartment, in an area where I’d never been before. I walked into his space, which was sad. He just had his belongings in black garbage bags and a couple of boxes. I was trying to overturn the boxes and make them into coffee tables. I was trying to do anything I could in the space. I thought, ‘It’s not going to do, so what can I do that’s empowering for him? I could ask someone to sponsor him and I could have everything bought and delivered. But is that empowering to him or not?’
I thought of the way a family rallies around a child or sibling setting off for the first time in their life, someone setting up their first apartment, where you gain appreciation for things that are given to you and who gave it to you and who helps you in the process. I started thinking about the value of hand-me down items that I used to set up my first ever home. How much I cherished those items. How much I needed them, not only for that first home but several.
I posted on social media: ‘Who has furniture and home goods for this young man?’ And within about a day, we had everything. I posted: ‘Who wants to come this weekend to pick it up?’ and ‘Who’s got a truck?’ and so on. A lot of people showed up with trucks. We went to many different homes to collect all the items. Then all of these people, along with the young man, worked with me to make the empty space a home, in half a day. Melissa filmed a few moments of this. And that experience and the footage enabled me to see a stunning transformation in terms of the space and in the individual. He was changed. I was changed. I was floored by how easily we could pool resources, work together, and so quickly transform a space and life.
We began A Sense of Home for two reasons:  After we did this, all of the young man’s peers kept asking ‘Can you help me?’ When we Googled, we learned there was no one doing it anywhere. So we went to the nonprofits that we knew in this space and showed them this video, telling them ‘This needs to be done, I’m sure you know someone doing it.’ They said, ‘No, we don’t’ and we’re like ‘Can you do it? No one seemed willing to do it. So we just kept responding to more and more requests coming in.  We could do it because every time I posted something on Facebook, someone responded and said ‘Yes, I have this’ and then people wanted to participate. There was great excess to meet the need but also the willingness of others to make the barn raising experience possible.
We just kept doing it. Over and over. There’s no way that we thought that in four years’ time we’d still be here. We didn’t think this would become our lives. We really saw a crisis and we ran to help. Like if you saw an earthquake and people were in need, you’d just run to it. That’s pretty much what we did. We really saw this was an opportunity for change. This was an opportunity for the community to create the change.
We discovered that in Europe they had done research that showed furniture was a prevention for homelessness. When someone was taken from homelessness and put into an empty apartment, they would return to homelessness. But if it was fully furnished and operating, they wouldn’t. And then learning that at some point, 30% of the aged out foster youth will experience homelessness. We wouldn’t have put all these pieces together had we not been in the situation and saw that there is a need and there is excess and when you bring the two together — lives are changed. Furniture is the least recycled item in homes. Many returned products are going into landfills. So we thought, ‘How can we create a really efficient model to impact as many people as possible.’
Generally people think, ‘Oh they’ve got a roof over their head, that’s awesome.’ But it’s not. Melissa found this quote by Confucius that says, ‘The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home.’ It’s so true. How a home functions is a building block for the success of the individual, society — the success of community. Foster youth are the most likely to become homeless, incarcerated, least employed, less educated, and are having babies younger than any other population.
Think about their situation versus the average American youth, who are completely 100% dependent on their parents until at least age 26. Today a lot of data says ‘The new 21 is 25’ but foster youth, who are never adopted (which is a large percentage) will age out of the system at 18 or 21. Yet the rest of American youth aren’t ready to age out of their own family home until they are 26 and they’ve had a loving good family. It’s no wonder that aged-out foster youth will face such astronomical odds. Just compare the gap between their experience and an average American kid.”
I was trying to do anything I could in the space. I thought, ‘It’s not going to do, so what can I do that’s empowering for him? I could ask someone to sponsor him and I could have everything bought and delivered. But is that empowering to him or not?’
Q. You began with shout outs on social media for donations and volunteers – how have you sustained interest?
Georgie: “In September, 2014, we formed the name and to form a non-profit, you don’t just say, ‘I’m going to start a nonprofit, you have to apply. So that didn’t come through until 2016. We formed a board just over 3 years ago. Someone helped us do a website for free, someone donated a warehouse space, someone donated a truck and we just started to figure it out as we went along. As I mentioned: there was excess and there was need, and we wanted to add value at every stage of the process. Not just in terms of picking up furniture from your home that you no longer need but in terms of how people experienced volunteerism — can we add value to their lives. If we do, won’t they bring more positivity into the home they are creating. It’s now so popular to volunteer that we created a sponsorship model, so if a company wants to do team building or a family or friends or club wants to create a home, they would donate $5,000. We came at that price because that is our overhead divided by the number of homes we are doing … and then as it turns out, that’s a very good number for when companies want to do these corporate volunteering team building experiences. Snapchat sends over 30 teams a year.”
Q. What is the best part of it?
Melissa: “The best part of this is that the best of humanity shows up. These kids who never felt worthy, never felt loved, never felt anyone cared, now have 30 people come in to their homes who are just there for them. I love, love the attention to detail of the volunteers; the care, the love, they don’t just deliver the furniture, they make sure that every picture is hung straight, every detail has to be perfect. It’s so beautiful.
For the youth, that’s the one thing that lingers every time. They keep saying ‘The love, the love, the love,’ and it registers in the brain that feeling of ‘I am worthy, I deserve this.’ They are seeing the best of humanity where growing up, they might’ve seen the worst of humanity. That’s my favorite part, the love that comes in. And how it changes the volunteers. It changes everyone. I love that part so much.”
Georgie: “And then the recipient also pays it forward and says ‘I thought that the greatest day of my life was having my home done but paying it forward is even better. ‘ If you can imagine you’re in scarcity and you’re in survival mode and then you transform to abundance and generosity — it is a very empowering shift. So the best day becomes when they get to give to another, a peer. They come over and over again to help. They see that it wasn’t just one group of good people, but that there’s a lot of good people out there.”
Q. You’re in the thick of it, how are women leading change?
Georgie: “From our perspective, it’s mostly women doing the volunteering or bringing their family. But when men join in, they are very, very surprised by their connection to it. I think that it this is an opportunity for people to be in a very intimate space, to see one another and connect to their own gratitude for what home is for them. Often solutions to social ills are considered to be a job, a roof over one’s heads — but these things actually lack a human touch. They lack ‘I see you, I hear you, I understand you, I’m here for you.’ Yet that at its core, that what matters to every human being is: to be loved, to be seen, to feel like they belong. This is what is needed to heal an individual, a society, a country.”
Melissa: “…seeing the men participate, you see the heart of these men, the empathy and they cry, they’re vacuuming, they’re doing the beds, it’s powerful. The hearts that come out with the men, the feminine sides, it’s beautiful.”
Georgie: “That’s why it’s all through word of mouth because we really haven’t done anything to say: ‘Hey come and do this and your life will be changed.’ People are telling one another how much they are changed. It’s because of that intimate space, because home is something we all need and crave and it’s vital to our overall well-being. Creating that for another is very healing.”
Q. What are your top 3 success tips for women who aspire to lead change?
Georgie: “See a need, act and you can do it. We may think it’s too big and that there are so many things wrong that it can seem overwhelming, but if you simply leave a positive imprint with someone, that’s making a change. No matter what we do, we make an impact. We can choose for it to be a positive impact. If we were more cognisant of it every day, it might shift into the mentality of being a part of a positive impact in all that we do and that would become second nature to us– being a part of positive change. You can slowly build by simply taking one step and then another, one building block aligned with another, to build something with others — to create change. The more you can bring people to experience the need, the easier, the more organic it becomes. So we bring people to be a part of the experience: they volunteer in our warehouse, they come and see all that goes into it. If you see a way for the community to affect change, you can make it happen. It will be the hardest work you’ve ever done but also the most rewarding. I’ve had definitely had the five most difficult years of my life, but I’ve gained so much.”
Georgie Smith and Melissa Goddard from A Sense of Home | Photo Courtesy of A Sense of Home Facebook
A Sense of Home | Photo Courtesy of A Sense of Home
Q. What’s been difficult about it?
Georgie: “All of it. Physically, I threw my whole body into it. We were renting U-Haul trucks and physically moving furniture in the heat, in the rain, in the freezing cold, it’s very physically demanding and you have to raise money, you can’t sell anything, this is all dependent on donations, so if I want to put gas in the truck, I’m going to have to raise money to do that and I’d never done that before. I’d never set up a nonprofit, that’s an entirely new way of doing business.”
Melissa: “…asking people for assistance…”
Georgie: “…and asking people for money is extremely hard.”
Melissa: “It’s a big burden because there are kids on the floor, there’s a family in need. We also have staff who have to live. And people are asking us to come to their city and/or country to do the work there. It’s a lot of pressure. Mindfulness is a big key. To not become overwhelmed by the mountain in front of you. Just go day to day, minute by minute. Just know the bigger picture is there and the meaningful life is being of service and know you are making a difference. Just put one foot in front of the other every day. Don’t think about the big thing that you are doing because that will overwhelm anybody.”
Georgie: “At the end of the day we have to constantly remind ourselves that it’s a gift for someone to give money towards the cause. To make an impact is a gift to them, it’s not a burden and it’s a gift for the people to participate. Being at peace with that and being okay with that is really important. There comes a time in anyone’s life when you can overdo it and that can affect your health. I saw this incredible need and went at it 24/7 because I had never seen anything like it before. Then there was nothing left in my house. I was giving it all away and giving every bit of energy away. I had to learn boundaries and preserve my own well-being in order to give to others, which is a really challenging lesson when you’re seeing people suffering in a way you’ve never seen before. That’s definitely something everyone has to go through in a nonprofit. You’re going to come across something that you may not have seen before and you might sort of chop off your arm to give to another but is that the most sensible thing to do or should you keep your arm so you can help more people?’ Obviously if you can preserve your own health, you can help more. That part is extremely challenging.”
Q. How do you deal with the cynics?
Georgie: “At the beginning, there were a few people who said, ‘You’re absolutely insane. I started a nonprofit and don’t do it.’ I was like ‘You just don’t know this particular need, they just don’t know.’”
Melissa: “There was such a void.”
Georgie: “Most people were like, ‘How are you going to do it? Yeah, Good luck.’ Then there may have been a thought from some that this is a decorating nonprofit, ‘That’s lovely.’ Honestly, we were convinced it needed to be done and we brought people in: ‘You want to come see what we’re doing, come.’”
Melissa: “I think that was the biggest thing, the ‘Oh, who cares about them having furniture. They have four walls. Can’t they just go get stuff off the side of the road’ or ‘You’re just doing decorating.’ Until you start seeing the impact, start seeing the change and feeling it. When people experience it, then they get it, it’s so much more than the furniture and that’s what all the kids say, “It’s so much more than the furniture. It’s you guys being here.’”
Q. What’s the best day look like?
Georgie: “Just before Christmas, we did one home and discovered that in the one building that there were ten more apartments with young girls living in them who had aged out of foster care who had their own children or roommates (also from foster care), it was about 20 young people existing without furniture or home goods. We created ten homes in 2 days. Just in time for the holidays. When everyone had gone, I was hanging curtains in one apartment where all girls from all apartments had gathered. They had gone from one apartment to the next to marvel over everyone’s new “home”. I was having this was a fly on the wall moment, because I was in the bedroom and in the living room all the girls were gathered, incredibly excited sharing their feelings thinking no one could hear them. One of the single moms said, ‘I thought people would show up with a sofa but there were 20 people in my apartment and they saw me and they heard me and my son and they knew what I needed and it’s exceeded my wildest dreams, way better than a catalogue. It was dark in my place and now it’s light.’ Another girl was saying, ‘My son asked, ‘Can we cook breakfast and eat at the table?’ He has never once asked me for breakfast. I didn’t realise he noticed we didn’t have a table and that that made meals unappealing.’”
Melissa: “We personalise the homes… asking, ‘What colours do you like? Where is your favorite place? Do you like the beach? What are your goals?’ It becomes a very personal space. Just for them.”
Q. What keeps you awake at night?
Georgie: “I’m not up at night anymore but I was. Getting enough money was the most challenging thing because you’re employing people, in addition to having to deliver a service that is greatly needed. Melissa and I gave up a lot of our own in order to make that happen, financially and in so many different ways. But for it to become sustainable, you need to develop a fundraising model. You need to develop ways to keep the organisation sustainable. We hadn’t sat at the kitchen table going ‘Here’s our idea, here’s how we’re going to do it, so in 12 months’ time we’re going to do this.’ We were already doing it without any pre-planned funding set aside to do it.”
Melissa: “We didn’t have our own personal pot of money sitting around, we were independent film producers.”
Georgie: “We were just doing it. Obviously, we had to go into our own reserves and make a lot of sacrifices. However, we weren’t even thinking about that, we were just thinking that we needed to figure out a very efficient model so that we can get all of the excess to those who need. We were literally picking up furniture ourselves as well as trying to fundraise ourselves in order to put the gas in the tank.”
Q. What do you hope for the future?
Georgie: “The goal is to get this throughout the world. It’s needed. Everywhere. One of the challenging things has been hearing how much this is needed around the world and not knowing how to get it there. It’s a burden. It’s a massive void. A Sense of Home is needed everywhere. So I didn’t just have to figure it out how to do it in L.A. but everywhere.”
Q. Are you going to tackle other cities?
Georgie: “We have to.”
Q. So did you ever end up adopting or becoming foster parents?
Georgie: “This, A Sense of Home, became our kid, thousands of kids.”
*Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.