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JewishJournal.com

July 5, 2012

The big reveal: How design makes rehab more serene

http://www.jewishjournal.com/los_angeles/article/the_big_reveal_how_design_makes_rehab_more_serene_20120705

Beit T’Shuvah residents Dan and Alex look around their new room as project chair Heidi Bendetson, project vice chair Rhonda Snyder and designer Cathleen Waronker watch. Photo courtesy of BTS Communications/Justin Rosenberg

Beit T’Shuvah residents Dan and Alex look around their new room as project chair Heidi Bendetson, project vice chair Rhonda Snyder and designer Cathleen Waronker watch. Photo courtesy of BTS Communications/Justin Rosenberg

Room 9500 is the bottom rung at Beit T’Shuvah, the first stop for male addicts newly arrived from prison, the hospital or the streets. Six rookies at a time inhabit this snug dormitory as they adjust to life in rehab. For years, 9500 marked a dark and dreary start toward recovery — its windows blocked by bunk beds and dressers, the blue carpet stained and shabby. Longtime residents have called their stint in the room an “initiation,” and not in a good way.

On a recent afternoon, Drew Marr and Nick Martinez found their initiation would be a lot more pleasant.

“Wow, this is awesome,” Martinez, 19, said as he stepped into a fully made-over space furnished with new storage cubbies and polished hardwood floors, designer bed linens and a fresh coat of muted teal paint. “I feel like I’m in a hotel.”

Martinez and Marr, 27, have interior designers Jenifer Porter and Kelley Edwards to thank. “We tried to create a calm, quiet space,” Edwards said. “This is such a crucial time for the residents. We wanted to open up the room and give them something classic and comfortable.”

Porter and Edwards are two of the 70 local designers who have renovated rooms at Beit T’Shuvah this year as part of a charitable effort to give the Los Angeles addiction treatment center a much-needed facelift. Over four months, teams of decorators donated their time, talent and supplies to transform the facility’s 40-plus primary-care rooms into havens they hope will aid residents as they strive for wellness.

Organized by Heidi Bendetson, a designer herself and founder of the nonprofit Designed From the Heart, with help from entrepreneur Rhonda Snyder, the dramatic makeover will be revealed to the public in an open-house fete on July 12.

The design project has been an unexpected gift for the landmark residential rehab and synagogue, said Rabbi Mark Borovitz, Beit T’Shuvah’s spiritual leader. And it couldn’t have come at a more apt time: The institution is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

“This project is in keeping with our mission of letting people know that they matter,” Borovitz said. “It’s a way of telling the residents, ‘Yeah, you’ve made mistakes. You’ve come here at the absolute bottom of your life, but don’t think that you don’t matter.’ It’s our statement of belief in them.”

Bendetson and Snyder pulled the enterprise together at almost no cost to Beit T’Shuvah, which is the only Jewish-run treatment center in the country. They enlisted designers through professional contacts and word-of-mouth, giving recruits only a loose set of criteria to guide their work: You must raise all the funds and materials for your room. The room must be durable enough to support a high turnover of residents. The style shouldn’t be too ritzy or over-the-top — it should be a place of respite for residents slogging through the tough first phases of sobriety.

“The main thing we said to them was we wanted it to be a comfortable space that was therapeutic, that’s good for healing,” Bendetson said. “I’ve been blown away by everything the designers did.”

Before the project began at Beit T’Shuvah’s Venice Boulevard campus in early March, the primary-care units, which each house two residents for four to six months at a time, hadn’t been updated since the center moved to its current home near Culver City in 1999. The bedrooms were dingy and disorganized, with drawings etched into the walls by a parade of former residents. The bathroom tiles were cracked and smeared with a stubborn patina of soap scum.

Facilities manager Craig Miller stripped out the old wiring and furniture, and epoxy-coated the shower stalls. Then the designers came in with their painters, contractors and friends to fashion the new installations.

The renovation was carried out in five blocks of about eight rooms each, while temporarily displaced residents bunked with their peers. In each room, designers had three weeks to complete their work. At the end of each three-week period, residents were welcomed back to their transformed living spaces amid a clutch of cameras clicking rapidly to capture their wide-eyed disbelief, their open mouths, their heartfelt exclamations of, “Oh my God!”

Karen Greenberg said she was “in awe” when she first stepped into her redesigned room two months ago. The powder-blue walls, seagrass carpet and capiz-shell chandelier reminded her of a seaside spa, she recalled.

Greenberg, 38, landed at Beit T’Shuvah in 2008 for a methamphetamine addiction. When she returned for another stay this year, she was given the same room. “It was so messy and chaotic, but I had to humble myself and accept it,” Greenberg said. “Then I found out they were going to redo it, and the designers were truly a blessing.”

Heide Ziecker, Sarah Moritz and Alex Fuller gave Greenberg and her roommate plenty of drawer space to hide the heaps of belongings strewn around the floor. Ziecker had custom storage beds built by Meridith Baer Home, where she works, and obtained two sleek, forest-patterned armchairs from Janus et Cie.

“This is a room that I can really call home,” Greenberg said. “It’s so peaceful and a safe space for us. It’s not easy being back here, but this room helps me get through my day.”

The residents aren’t the only ones to be touched by the experience. Ziecker said she felt privileged to have a hand in a project that could help change lives. “I’m so excited thinking about the people who are going to be in this room for years to come and how this might be a bright spot in an otherwise difficult struggle,” she said.

Bendetson said that’s how she felt when she participated in a similar charitable design project at Good Shepherd, a women’s homeless shelter downtown, in May 2011. Until that point, her career as an interior designer had been fairly standard. But after remaking a room for a woman she’d never met, she yearned for more work that would lift her spirits so profoundly.

“I was so moved that I thought, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life — to get people together and bring them to places that need their help,’ ” Bendetson said.

She founded Designed From the Heart when the Good Shepherd project was over, and began searching for a Jewish organization that could benefit from a spruce-up. Snyder, a longtime friend who currently has a relative in treatment at Beit T’Shuvah, told Bendetson the unique healing center might be a good candidate.

But Bendetson had to chuck a few preconceived notions first. “I had to get over it being a rehab,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘Why should you redesign rooms for people in rehab? Isn’t it their fault that they’re here?’ I had to get past the stigma and understand what goes on here and what it’s like for them.”

When she and Snyder approached Borovitz, the rabbi warmed to the idea immediately. It was Harriet Rossetto, Beit T’Shuvah’s founder and CEO, who needed to be convinced.

“I didn’t really see what this was about — I didn’t have the vision,” said Rossetto, who is married to Borovitz. “I can see transformations in people, but I’m not so good at transformation of space.”

Gradually, she realized that a clean, professionally decorated room could have a big impact on the facility’s 145 residents. “It’s about supporting their internal changes with an external manifestation,” she said, marveling at the night-to-day makeover of room 9500. “That can make an enormous difference in the message they get on just the first day: ‘Here’s a place that values me and my serenity.’ ”

Through programming and at Friday night services — which are routinely packed with upwards of 300 attendees — Borovitz aims to boost the self-worth of those in recovery, he said. Telling residents they deserve a beautiful place to live instills a twofold sense of value, he added: Not only do they reap the benefits of a soothing environment, but also they’re able to feel the support and care of the larger Jewish community beyond the walls of Beit T’Shuvah.

“Many people go through life thinking, ‘What difference does it make what I do?’ When you think like that, using makes sense — escape makes sense,” he said. “But when you’re involved in your life, when you’re immersed in it, when you realize that you matter to other people, it gives you a different relationship with living. Our message to the residents and the designers’ message to the residents is just that: You’re important.”

As Beit T’Shuvah turns 25, Borovitz and Rossetto hope to deliver this message on a broader scale. Beit T’Shuvah’s leadership recently purchased the building next door and plans to break ground on a remodel next month that would create new office space, meeting lounges and a youth center, among other amenities. Its board is in the midst of a $25 million capital campaign to finance the expansion and finish upgrading the existing facility.

The center’s programs already stretch the boundaries of what is typically offered at traditional rehabs, and Borovitz is eager to grow the catalog further. Residents can take part in surf therapy, basketball, creative writing and photography classes, dance, yoga and even music lessons at their own recording studio. Beit T’Shuvah has a choir and stages musical theater productions each year. Staff members — 80 percent of whom have gone through treatment at Beit T’Shuvah themselves — encourage residents to find their “passion and purpose” in life through elective activities, career training, in-house internships and, last but not least, mandatory Torah study every day at 7 a.m., Borovitz said.

“This program is not only about not drinking or using — it’s about changing the way you live,” he said. “People come because they want to live well and help others live well.”

To that end, Bendetson didn’t want to limit participation in the design project to designers by trade. She wanted to extend the opportunity to anyone with the will and the means. “If they could afford to do it and they asked to do it, I said, ‘Go for it,’ ” she said. “Love and desire are what you need in a charitable situation like this. I called my nonprofit Designed From the Heart, and I really felt that’s what they were doing.”

Local businesses also got in on the spirit of generosity. Lewis Hyman Inc. of Carson donated nearly all of the window treatments for the rooms, Snyder Diamond in Santa Monica contributed hardware and light fixtures, and Lester Carpet Co.  in the Fairfax district provided several rooms’ worth of carpeting.

Renovating a room wasn’t cheap — most units, including materials and labor, cost $10,000 to $15,000 each, Bendetson estimated. But that didn’t dampen participants’ zeal.

“As hard a job as it was to raise the money, afterward everyone said, ‘If I could do this again, I’d do it in a heartbeat,’ ” she said.

Many of the decorators left personal gifts for the residents of their rooms, such as monogrammed mugs or leather-bound journals for them to record their thoughts. Writing desks are a staple in most units. One designer hung a full-size surfboard on the wall and placed surfing photography books on the dressers.

In Mike Sauer’s room, designer Jill Wolff set aside wall space for a meaningful detail — a bronze sculpture of a miniature man pulling himself up a rope. The metaphor is clear to Sauer as he struggles to shake a gambling addiction that emerged a few years after he got sober from drugs and alcohol.

“It seems like one addiction after another,” he said.

But Sauer, 25, said he found hope at his first Shavuot celebration at Beit T’Shuvah this year. “It was cool to stay up all night and have nothing to do with gambling or drinking or using,” he recalled. “Just being together as a community and getting wrapped in the Torah — it was a pretty powerful experience.”

Gently lit by a bedside lamp amid the rich chocolate tones of his new room, Sauer looked around and smiled. “This is an amazing place,” he said. “This is a good place to start the rest of my life.”

For more information about Beit T’Shuvah’s “Grand Reveal” open house, visit beittshuvah.org.

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