Team of Decorators Renovates Newark’s Apostles’ House Shelter
By Alexandra Gakos
May 9, 2017
Sometimes we just need one small gesture of kindness to feel one small ray of hope.
Maybe it’s reassurance that a good friend will help us through a tough time. Maybe it’s just a smile from a stranger on a bad day.
What matters most is that it’s there.
On a day filled with camaraderie, philanthropy, and several small gestures of kindness, a group of volunteers gathered on Saturday, May 6, 2017, and dedicated a day of service to renovating the Apostles’ House, a shelter in Newark, New Jersey, for families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
The renovation effort was spearheaded by The Shauger Group, Inc., which recruited a team of company sponsors and volunteers: the New Jersey Devils; Bobcat of North Jersey; Atlas Desk & Office Services; Trenk, DiPasquale, Della Fera & Sodono, P.C.; SUEZ North America; Pure Properties; and Inglesino, Webster, Wyciskala, & Taylor, LLC.
US Senator for New Jersey Cory Booker, whose support of the Apostles’ House has spanned well over a decade, also joined residents and volunteers to share in the joy of Saturday’s team effort.
Ten years ago, many of the same companies, along with Senator Booker, who was the mayor of Newark at the time, had teamed up to perform an extreme makeover at the Apostles’ House. In honor of the 10-year anniversary of 2007’s original makeover project, Donald Shauger, executive vice president of The Shauger Group, enlisted the help of many of the same volunteers. Together, they returned to the Apostles’ House to make critical updates and renovations to the shelter.
“I can’t tell you how exciting this is ten years later to see this,” said Senator Booker. “I’m pretty moved by the consistency of the engagement with this community.”
Bright and Early
From the moment company volunteers began arriving at 8:30 a.m. this past Saturday, there was a palpable excitement in the air as the volunteers readied themselves for a day that had been months in the making.
Together, the team of sponsors had put thousands of dollars toward the renovation project, purchasing all new bed frames, mattresses, computers, decorations, and anything else necessary to refurbish the shelter. Each of the main company sponsors paid an entrance fee to cover the basic costs of the renovation, and then each company took on the creative responsibility of redecorating and refurnishing its individual room.
Other companies made in-kind donations as well: Aldo Design Group donated area carpeting for the first floor and staircases, and J.P.L. Painting & Wallcovering, Inc. donated its services to paint the first floor. Louis T. Roselle, Inc. donated dumpsters for volunteers to use for the day’s cleanup, and Atlas Desk & Office Services, one of the main company sponsors, assumed the additional responsibility of donating furniture for a new, state-of-the-art computer center.
To give the volunteers energy as they worked, Classic Café Management donated a full continental breakfast. Volunteers carried brand-new furniture up flights of stairs. They removed mattresses and bed frames that were over a decade old, replacing them with ones fresh off of a delivery truck. They hung pictures, artwork, and other decorations consistent with the theme of each room’s decor. They added fresh coats of paint, cleaned up backyard debris, and left a backyard surprise—a revitalized playground for the children to enjoy.
“I didn’t even know they were doing the backyard, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing,’” said Alanna Henry, family support specialist at the Apostles’ House. “I just feel the love. It’s indescribable. It feels really good to know that other people care.”
To show his daughter the value of giving back, Essex County Freeholder Rolando Bobadilla brought his daughter with him to help with the day’s service efforts. Together, they worked with members of The Shauger Group and Senator Booker’s office to clean up the backyard.
Importantly, all of the volunteers stood as a symbol of hope for the shelter’s residents—hope that there are people who care about them, that they are not forgotten, and that there can be a reason for courage in times of struggle.
“It’s just an excellent example of humanity when you have strangers that come and take care of you for the day,” said Iris Yanta, the operations coordinator at the Apostles’ House. “That doesn’t happen too often.”
More Than Just a Roof
The Apostles’ House emergency shelter where the renovation took place—located at 16-18 Grant Street—is a source of comfort to approximately 50 women and children. More than just a place that keeps families warm, the Apostles’ House provides its residents with much-needed emotional support, guides them on the path to self-sufficiency, and offers them a fresh beginning during times of hardship.
Formed in 1982, the Apostles’ House organization has various Newark locations and programs, including emergency shelter and transitional housing sites, a food pantry, and a clothing pantry. The mission of the organization as a whole is to provide comprehensive social services to Newark families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, with the ultimate goal of helping them transition out.
At the 16-18 Grant Street emergency shelter, specifically, the goal is to have residents back on their feet within approximately 90 days, according to Yanta.
Residents welcomed to the Apostles’ House arrive under a variety of circumstances. Unexpected situations of eviction or job loss may lead them there, as may situations in which an individual’s last residence has suddenly been found uninhabitable. More extreme measures, such as abuse or strained family relationships, may also prompt individuals to seek the shelter’s aid.
“We want them to be safe and comfortable, and live in the same environment that we all want to live in,” said Richard Trenk, managing partner at Trenk, DiPasquale, Della Fera & Sodono, P.C. “They deserve it. Everybody deserves to have a quality life and be able to be in surroundings that are safe and beautiful.”
Trenk was one of the returning volunteers who had participated in the original renovation project in 2007. So was Elnardo Webster, who was eager to once again play a role in shaping the future of the Apostles’ House. Considering it a “good investment of [his] company’s time and resources,” Webster, a partner at Inglesino, Webster, Wyciskala, & Taylor, LLC, recruited a team from his office for renovation day.
For one of Webster’s employees, Ann Murphy, the decision to volunteer was intensely personal. When Murphy was a child, Murphy’s mother fled with her four children from a situation of domestic abuse. Murphy recalled her own childhood experience of taking shelter with family, and the Apostles’ House renovation effort brought her own life experience full-circle.
“Most people really haven’t experienced a struggle,” added Murphy. “If you’ve never been in a struggle, you don’t understand what these people go through. So, even though they don’t reach out, there are times when others—like The Shauger Group, who come and extend their services to these people—should. They need that. People don’t often realize that because they’ve never been in a struggle themselves.”
Rebecca Parra of Atlas Desk & Office Services echoed Murphy’s sentiment, noting that individuals have a responsibility to care for the rest of humanity and seek out opportunities to give back.
“The project was special to me because it brought out the nonprofit-hearted in the for-profit world,” said Parra. “Sometimes it’s simple to forget the people in our community because we don’t understand that they need our help. The opportunity to work on the women and children’s home was beyond an act of goodwill, it was a humbling reminder of what it means to be human.”
It Looks Like Hollywood
While the volunteers worked, they treated the residents to a special day out. A rare opportunity for the residents to leave the Apostles’ House, Saturday’s outing started with a breakfast at IHOP, followed by a trip to the Essex County Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange; both were paid for in full by the sponsors. The sponsors arranged for a bus to pick up the residents at 8:00 a.m. and bring them back at 2:00 p.m. for the unveiling of the renovated shelter.
After the bus rolled back in, everyone assembled outside the front entrance of the Apostles’ House in anticipation of the big reveal. Shauger and Yanta each gave speeches, as did two special guests: Essex County Freeholder President Britnee Timberlake and Newark Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins.
“To Donnie and to everyone, you are transforming lives—you are giving hope,” said Jenkins. “But most importantly, you’re giving dignity, and you’re protecting humanity. You guys put sweat equity into this. You put your love, you put your heart—and you came out and you treated everyone to a future.”
Jenkins concluded her speech with a powerful message to the residents of the Apostles’ House.
“To the families: be blessed, enjoy, and know that people do care. If you never see them again in life, understand that on today, they made a difference.”
Timberlake’s speech resonated deeply with both residents and volunteers.
“No man, woman, boy, or girl should ever go to bed without a roof over their heads,” said Timberlake. “This here is the reason why we should be living—and that is to do good and be change agents.”
The much-anticipated moment finally arrived, and company volunteers gathered with the residents of the rooms that their companies had renovated. What followed was an extremely emotional few minutes for residents and volunteers alike, as volunteers led the families upstairs to their newly renovated rooms and welcomed them home.
Full of hugs, tears, and smiles, the next few moments also brought out residents’ priceless, unforgettable reactions.
“It looks like Hollywood!” said one resident.
“This is how big the room is? Are you serious?!” exclaimed another.
“This is so nice! Are you sure you’re going to want to move out?” one resident asked another.
“This room is so zen and so peaceful, we’re going to have to get a yoga instructor to come!” joked another.
“I can’t thank you all enough—you have made this place feel like a home and not a shelter,” cried another.
Members of Bobcat of North Jersey, one of the other firms that participated in the original Apostles’ House renovation, enjoyed a special moment with residents as they gave a tour of the room renovated by Bobcat. Employee volunteers pointed out all of the new furniture in their room, including three dressers, a glider chair, an ottoman, a side table, and lamps. In addition to providing comforters, linens, and pictures, the company bought baby toys for the room’s crib and a few mini stuffed Bobcat construction toys, which Senator Booker insisted upon taking a picture with.
As a special touch, Kathy Ryan, co-owner of Bobcat of North Jersey, left a new bathrobe and a box of chocolates on each of the beds in their room. Ten years ago, Ryan had also bought boxes of chocolate for the residents.
“It’s just very nice to know you’re doing good for people who really need it,” said Ryan.
Members of SUEZ were so passionate about the Apostles’ House project that the company undertook the responsibility of revamping two rooms, not just one.
“You get to see a room in its bare state and see the end result and know it’s contributing to someone’s happiness,” said Treva Spencer, manager of communications and community relations at SUEZ. “Our company is really big on corporate social responsibility, and this was an opportunity for a new venture.”
“Don and Lisa [Shauger] spoke so passionately about their experiences at the Apostles’ House, we wanted to become involved in this project and give back to the community,” added Mary Campbell, vice president of business development at SUEZ.
Rachel Geruso, manager of premium service for the New Jersey Devils, said the Devils and Prudential Center jumped at the opportunity to be part of the project, knowing it would make a difference in the Newark community.
“When Don asked for our involvement, there was not a minute’s hesitation that our company would become part of this project,” said Geruso.
Ezequiel Ortiz, broker of record/managing director of Pure Properties, felt inspired by the passion of the day’s volunteers, noting that the best part of the day was “seeing how motivated everyone involved was just to help someone else.”
So too did Jeff Scott, vice president of community investment for the Devils.
“We understand that these women and children are going through a challenging time in their lives,” said Scott. “We are truly excited to be here and to help transition this place to someplace that they know is safe, is comforting, and essentially is home.”
Donald Shauger, grateful for everyone’s commitment to the initiative, felt fortunate that every last volunteer and sponsor was as passionate about the service project as he was.
“This project wouldn’t have been possible without the dedication of all of the volunteers and sponsors,” said Donald Shauger. “But two people in particular, Lisa Elam and Alexandra Gakos, went above and beyond in spearheading this effort. They poured their hearts into this project, making sure that every last detail was worked out so that the renovation was as perfect as the residents deserved.”
After the unveiling, residents and volunteers celebrated together at an outdoor barbecue, complete with a deejay. Everyone enjoyed a delicious spread of food, which had been donated by Classic Café Management.
A Look Back and a Look Forward
One of Donald Shauger’s favorite memories at the Apostles’ House was listening to his mother’s inspiring words as she spoke with the residents and shared her own experience as a single mother. To support her family, Laura Shauger had worked six to seven days per week, often for more than thirteen hours per day, while trying to care for five children, one of whom was terminally ill.
That’s one of the reasons why the Apostles’ House holds special meaning for Donald Shauger—and one of the reasons why he and his wife, Lisa Shauger, who is president/CEO of The Shauger Group, never forget to give back. Since the time of the initial renovation in 2007, the Shaugers and The Shauger Group have remained deeply committed to the Apostles’ House, dedicating company resources to a multitude of small projects and regularly helping with repair work.
“I’m so thankful to have parents and a family that have taught me the importance of giving back,” said Marisa Shauger.
Additionally, the Shauger family spends Christmas morning every year at the Apostles’ House, passing time with the families and showering them with special gifts.
“Ten years ago, when we were introduced to the Apostles’ House, we did what we did,” said Donald Shauger. “And I have to tell you, ten to eleven years later, the Apostles’ House is still standing, still well-maintained, and the residents are well-deserving of what they got. Hey, they hit a bump in the road, and the Apostles’ House is now going to get them back on their feet. They’re going to have a transitional period now.
“Now, with the state-of-the-art new computers, they can do job searches, they can do resumes…. We’ve already had three people offer to come down once a month to do computer classes with them. So now, we’re not just giving them shelter, we’re going to try to help them find a job, to show them that there is better out there and they can do better.”
“Thank you is just not enough,” said Senator Booker. “I just give my love to Donnie and to all the volunteers, everyone who helped out here. You really are showing what citizenship is all about, which is being there for each other, remembering where we’ve all come from. We all, in our family trees, have had struggles—have had difficulties—and usually the turning point in our lives is the goodness, decency, and love of other people.”
Renovation day video by Collins Creative Media, LLC:
Renovation day photo slideshow: