Hero Home Makers
When does a city become a true community?
Does it happen once we reach a certain population size? Desirability? Historical significance?
Here at I Heart Costa Mesa, we believe the hallmark of a city’s sense of community is more simple and far less measurable: the degree to which its residents show up, participate and care… with full humanity and neighborliness intact. Not only in the big, splashy ways (although those can be fun), but also in the small, quiet acts of kindness that ask nothing in return.
And if caring in actionable ways is the path to “true community,” Costa Mesans like Beth Phillips and her philanthropic foundation, Furnishing Hope, are paving the way.
Furnishing Hope is a non-profit organization transforming the empty living spaces of severely-wounded veterans (and their families) into comfortable, peaceful, fully-furnished homes. They focus on bringing relief, dignity and joy into the lives of military service members.
We sat down with Beth Phillips – and her daughter, Robyn – to chronicle the critical, community-minded work they do.
Hope Dreams: Beth Phillips and Her Daughter, Robyn, Find Purpose Transforming The Lives and Homes of Military Members
photographer: brandy young
As is so often the case, the path Phillips was meant to travel is not the one that began her journey.
“We started out in 2003 furnishing homes for Habitat for Humanity,” began Phillips. “We partnered with them to complete six houses over on Pomona Street. I was an interior designer at the time and had a high-end client switching their house from traditional to contemporary. So I convinced the client to donate that traditional furniture to our project. We were able to furnish all six houses from that donation – all we had to buy were new mattresses and maybe a couple of sofas.
“From there, Habitat For Humanity wanted us to do more, and we ended up doing every home they built in Orange County from 2003 – 2010.
“One day, we were brought down to do a Habitat house in San Juan Capistrano and that’s when everything changed for me. The house was for a military service family. We saw for the first time, up close, what these men and women were facing when they got home. The stress, the pain, the sense of loss. It really impacted me. I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh. This is it. This is where I need to be.’
“The need was tremendous, so I immediately switched gears and began furnishing homes for wounded heroes coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq. Since 2011, we’ve furnished over 200 homes for wounded military heroes, but there is still so much more to do.”
Furnishing Hope Relies on the Donation of Materials and Home Accessories from a Variety of Sources, and then Must Find Ways to Handle Storage and Transport
photographer: brandy young
Some might say, “What’s the big deal? What difference can a little furniture make?” But as Phillips explains, it’s not so much about the furniture but the time, effort, compassion and care the furniture represents.
“These projects aren’t always easy,” said Phillips. “We go in blind. We don’t see the homes until we show up to furnish them. So we have to make it work with very little information, in a very short window of time. We’re getting better at it the more we do it. We have a list of all the things that might fit into a living room like end tables, sofas, a TV console. We bring the basics of a bedroom: clean bed, nightstand, dresser. But the challenge – both the stress and the fun of it – is arranging it all in a way that breathes new life into the room.
“And do you know the most common response we get from these service men and women, from these families? It isn’t joy or surprise or excitement like you might expect. It’s relief. The moment they see their new, fully-furnished space… they relax.”
“You can watch the stress leave their body the minute they walk through the door,” agreed Robyn Phillips. “We just did a house this past Monday and the wife was pregnant. But she was so focused on caring for her husband – who had been in the hospital with an amputation that wasn’t healing properly – she had no time or energy to plan for the baby.
“So she walks into her home after we’ve set up the nursery, a place to rock the baby, and you could watch the stress melt away from her entire body. She just smiled – maybe for the first time in a long time.
“As her husband thanked us, he said, ‘People just don’t get how worrisome it is not to have anything.’ Worrisome, that’s what he said; it really spoke to me.”
“Here are these heroes coming back from fighting for our country,” said Phillips. “They get patched up, get discharged, and then are given up on. Well, we are not giving up on them. They deserve better than ‘worrisome.’ I think we can do better than that.”
Beth and Robyn took us to see, first hand, the difference Furnishing Hope makes in the everyday lives of wounded heroes – some of whom are right here in Costa Mesa. We had the honor and privilege of visiting disabled combat veteran, Aaron Steckman, at his apartment on the north side of town.
Steckman is a tall, broad-shouldered man who can fill a doorway just by standing in it. His hands swallow yours with a handshake. His eyes are warm, yet mixed with the anguished kind of knowing that comes from having seen too much.
For years, Steckman proudly served in combat – even after the physical, mental and emotional wounds began to take their toll. But as he tells it, the worst of his struggles, by far, came from trying to acclimate to civilian life once he could no longer serve. Without the structure, resources and purpose-driven foundation the military provided, Steckman felt lost, hopeless and disconnected from the community around him.
“I was up at the VA in Long Beach and I was in really rough shape,” said Steckman. “I was alone. I had nothing. Honestly, I had suicidal thoughts and things just weren’t getting any better. It had been a long time at the bottom and things weren’t looking good for me.
“One day, I was talking to this man at the VA and I told him some of my story. I told him the hopeless situation I was in. When I finished, he looked at me for a while and then he goes, ‘Have you heard of a young woman named Beth Phillips?’
“I said, ‘No, sir.’
“He said, ‘She is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. She does some of the most beautiful work for vets like you. She gets their homes furnished from top to bottom. Not just someone else’s beat up junk. Brand new stuff – better than I have in my own house. I think you could use a fresh start like that.’
“I was a bit apprehensive, like, ‘Nah. That’s ok. I don’t need all that fuss.’ But he said, ‘Do yourself a favor, son, and give her a call.’ He just said it with such conviction, I couldn’t let it go.
“I got a friend of mine to call Furnishing Hope for me, because at that point I was in real bad shape. I was still in rehab; I couldn’t figure out the paperwork. I have memory issues from one too many concussions – and it all felt too complicated and overwhelming. But my friend sat me down and we slowly filled out the paperwork together.
“It was crazy and kind of sad because the questionnaire asked these good questions, like, ‘What do you do for fun?’ And I thought, ‘Fun? What is that? I don’t even know how to answer that question.’ And at that point, I really didn’t.
Remembering Isn’t Easy, But Forgetting Is Not an Option: Steckman Holds Up a Photo of a Good Friend Lost in Combat
photographer: brandy young
These days, Steckman does lots of things for fun – including cooking, volunteering at his church and hosting friends at his home.
“That one day literally changed my life,” said Steckman. “I get a knock on the door, of all days, on 9/11. There, in the street, is this moving truck – and the whole thing is filled just for me. They brought in this beautiful furniture and unwrapped it, piece by piece. They even brought me an oversized recliner big enough to fit me. I’ve never, in my whole life, owned a recliner. They kept trying to ask me where I wanted it all set up, but I was bawling my eyes out thinking, ‘How can perfect strangers give a gift like this to a man like me?’
“They didn’t know me. They didn’t know all the problems I’d had at the VA. They didn’t know all the struggles I’d faced. All they knew was that there was someone out there who had served his country – and that he was in trouble and in need – and they stepped in to help. Do you realize the power of that?
“That was the first day I felt worthy, because somebody cared enough about me to do all this. It really did give me hope. Maybe I wasn’t a lost cause after all. This gift from Beth and Robyn got me on the fast track to recovery. I found my purpose; I could make a difference again. I have learned from their example and now I try to give back any way I can.
“I don’t have any animosity toward the VA or military – I love both institutions with all my heart. But they need to realize they can’t do it all by themselves. It’s not working. They don’t have the manpower or resources to help everyone who needs it.
“With all these veterans coming back – many in even worse shape than I ever was – someone has to be willing, courageous and generous enough to step in and make a difference when no one else will. Beth has done that with Furnishing Hope. She didn’t hear about these problems and say, ‘Well, that’s a shame,’ or ‘Gosh, I feel for you,’ and go on her way.
“Beth stood up, put up her hand and said, ‘Enough. This is a problem. This can’t go on.’ She has shown me what true courage looks like. I am forever changed.”
Helping all the veterans who need it is a tall order for Furnishing Hope, so fundraising has become a cornerstone of their organization. They need a steady stream of donations – both tangible and monetary – in order to continue.
“I don’t go on installations anymore because our need for funding is too great,” said Phillips. “I spend most of my time raising money. No other organization is doing what we do, so if someone has the need for our services, they are coming to us. I don’t want to have to turn people away.”
Aside from money, Phillips is very open about other urgent needs and how people can help.
“Right now, we desperately need skilled volunteers,” said Phillips. “Can you sew? Can you upholster? Do you have experience with data entry, computer input, inventory tracking? We need you.
“We could use some warehouse maintenance volunteers. And if you own a local warehouse and can donate the space – even better. It doesn’t have to be the whole warehouse, just some of it. We are in desperate need of storage space. I have nowhere to store nearly all that we need.
“We could also use a van, in good condition, for transportation.
“If you have event-planning experience, we could use you. We’re always planning events and fundraisers and any help in that area would be amazing.”
We asked the Phillips and Steckman if there was one final thing they wanted to say to Costa Mesa:
“Here is what I want your readers to take away,” said Steckman. “If ever there was a cause worthy of your support – where when you gave, you knew your money would be exceptionally well-spent and well-given – that cause is Furnishing Hope. For the rest of my life, whenever I am given the chance, I will tell anyone willing to listen that these ladies, right here, saved my life. They are worthy of your support.”
“I just want Costa Mesa to know we are here,” said Beth Phillips. “Not everyone is aware of what we are doing in Southern California. And I want people to know that if we can gather more, we can give more. So please consider us, consider donating to this work we are trying to do.
“I believe our military service members deserve the dignity of a furnished space; a place where they can be with their family, a place where they can invite people over and make friends, a place to call home as they reintegrate into our community. If anyone reading this agrees with me, I hope you’ll reach out to us.” ♥
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