Dionne Williamson is a woman of many talents. She’s the National Sales Director for Visit Buffalo Niagara and the founder of the 501(c)(3) non-profit organization UPward Design for Life. Based in Buffalo, New York, UPward Design For Life collects gently used furniture items from the community and uses them to furnish the homes of those in need, including domestic violence survivors, refugees, and veterans. Since its inception, UPward Design for Life has been able to assist over 35 families in creating a sense of safety at home.
As a proud partner of UPward Design for Life, we sat down with Dionne to learn more about the incredible work being done through her organization.
What first sparked your interest in interior design?
Dionne Williamson: I love interior design. I’ve always had an interest in it and my Mother played a big role in that. She always made our home feel very warm, welcoming, safe, and beautiful. Her mentality was that no matter where you come from, or how much money you have or don’t have, you keep a clean house. Growing up, my Saturday mornings were sometimes spent with a bucket of hot soapy water and a rag washing the walls and woodwork. My Dad worked at Bethlehem Steel for over 35 years and on the side he would do paint projects for people. Because of my parents, I grew up with a great appreciation for home and how special it is to have a safe, warm environment.
What inspired you to start UPward Design for Life?
DW: Over the years, I’ve used my own creativity to create nice spaces for myself in my own home. I became a certified interior design consultant and I started an interior design business, but it didn’t really work out as well as I would have hoped. I found out about an organization in Detroit that was doing something similar [to what UPward Design for Life is doing now] and I thought, “This is it. This is what I’m supposed to be doing.” So I reached out to the organization to see if they would bring that concept to Buffalo, but no one got back to me. I sat on the idea for, I don’t know, maybe two, three years, and then one day I said, “You know what Dionne, just go for it.” I’ve had businesses before, but never a nonprofit, and so I thought, “I’m just going to give it a try.” I believe in living without regrets.
What did it take to get UPward Design for Life off the ground?
DW: When we started out, it was my family and I. I did my research and I networked with people. I told a few people about my idea and I got support along the way. We signed on volunteers relatively quickly. A lot of things I had to learn as I went along. What was most important was developing a relationship with our partner agencies. I wanted the agencies to trust me because they’re basically handing over their clients to us for services, so I started off by creating the website. I wanted to make sure that I told enough information about myself because I wanted them to know that they could trust the work that we were doing, and that we were going to respect their clients and take good care of them. As we started to develop those relationships, then the referrals started coming in. We started gaining more of a following on social media and word started to travel.
What does a typical day for UPward Design for Life look like?
DW: When a client is referred to us, I schedule a home visit with them at their apartment. That gives me an opportunity to go in, see their space, take measurements, and get an idea of what they really need. Then, I reach out to our volunteers via email and say, “We have a project coming up, who’s available?” and people sign up. Then, I look over all of our items in storage. We have two storage units at Life Storage. We’ve maintained one unit and then earlier this year, we picked up a second unit just because the donations are coming in so fast. If there’s something that the family really needs that we don’t have, I will reach out to the community and say, “Hey, I need such and such for an upcoming family. Does anyone have anything that they can donate?” And sure enough, nine times out of ten, the community comes through and we’re able to provide these families with the things that they need. The morning of, I usually have the volunteers meet us at the Life Storage unit. We have volunteers who will load their personal vehicles with items like lamps, décor, and things like that. Then, we head over to the residence and we try to get the job done within two hours. It depends on the size of the project and how many volunteers we have on staff.
What brought you to Life Storage for your storage needs?
DW: When we started, we actually started storing the donations in my home. Our living room was loaded with dressers. In the laundry room, there were microwaves stacked on top of each other. It was crazy. I had converted our garage into a storage unit. Then, it just got to be way too much. And so I had one of my coworkers from my day job say, “You know what? I know someone at Life Storage. Maybe they can help you.” I did and luckily I was able to get space at a Life Storage unit. I moved the items out of my living room area and into the Life Storage unit. The service from day one has always been great. If I didn’t feel as if I was being treated with respect or care, I wouldn’t be here. The staff has been wonderful.
What is the typical reaction your client’s have when they see their new space?
DW: It runs the gamut from jumping up and down to tears of joy. The best part is to see a child’s face. When they walk into their bedroom that was once empty and maybe they were sleeping on the floor, and now they have their own bed and a fully finished bedroom with beautiful pictures on the wall, their face says it all. We work with a lot of domestic violence survivors, especially women with children who have come through some very, very difficult challenges. And so nine times out of ten, the majority of the clients are super humble. They’re super grateful for everything that we’ve been able to provide. It just makes me feel so good to know that I’m doing something far greater than me.
How important is a well designed home on someone’s well being?
DW: Design is everything. I think we are deeply impacted by our surroundings, whether we pay attention to it or not, just like we’re impacted by the weather sometimes. So when you are already struggling, and then you come home and your home is empty… you have nothing to sleep on, you have nothing to sit on it… it’s not going to bring you joy. You’re stressed about the fact that you don’t have anything in your home and for your children. So we place things accordingly, and in an instant it changes how a family feels, because now they know this is one less thing they have to worry about. These are all material things, but they really can make a difference and a strong impact on your life and your family’s life.
How can someone get involved with UPward Design for Life?
DW: We engage with our community on a regular basis through social media. That’s where we keep them in the loop with what we’re doing or what projects we’re working on. If we need assistance, we’re always reaching out to the community. We’re very grateful for our community and supporters. Our volunteers, our financial donors, those who donate their furnishings to us, they all play a significant role in the work that we do and they are all a part of our story.