Interior design students are transforming neglected areas in NYC

For the interior design students returning for their fall semester at the Fashion Institute of Technology, it hasn’t been a relaxing break. In fact, they have spent the majority of their holiday working without earning a dime.

This is because they have been transforming the interior of St Paul’s House in New York City. St Paul’s House is located on a quiet block on 51 Street in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood. This unassuming building opens its doors every Monday, Wednesday and Friday’s and offers the homeless of New York a much appreciated free meal.

It was this small organisation’s incredible work that caught the attention of the interior design Students who are part of FIT’s Integrated Service-Learning Project (ISLP).

The ISLP has been designed to give students and volunteers’ hands on experience of interior design, whilst transforming underserved buildings in the city. The project is completely voluntary and doesn’t cost the organisations receiving the make-over a cent.

Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) associate professor, Carmita Sanchez-Fong, tells us that initially, the programme began as a response to the tragedy that occurred in Long Beach New Jersey when Superstorm Sandy hit.  She explains how she was approached by students who wanted to do something: “They didn’t quite know how to help themselves or how to help others.”

Sanchez- Fong explains how she saw it as an opportunity to teach her students a valuable lesson.

“It was an opportunity to teach them how to get up and keep going because that’s all you can do. The possibility of what’s possible through design to change the lives of other people.” She said.

That year, Sanchez-Fong and her students ended up helping 17 families recover after the storm by offering interior design services.

Once their work was done, the students asked their professor: “What’s next?”

Sanchez- Fong wasn’t sure what was next on the horizon so she turned to her church for advice. They pointed her in the direction of Hope for New York, a volunteer group that offers its services to various projects over the city.

“I called Hope for New York and they became my best friends.” Sanchez- Fong laughs as she remembers how her partnership with the charity came about.

She explains how the collaboration works: “They give us a list of projects and then we look at the ones that will have the greatest impact in the city, what ones will connect us most to New York, so we are able to do projects that are important to our students.”

Throughout the conversation, Sanchez- Fong reinforces that it is the emotional buy in from the students that is most important when choosing a project.

All the people who volunteer for ISLP don’t receive cash or student credit in exchange for their time, which is often spent during the summer and winter breaks. Therefore Sanchez-Fong knows that in order for a project to be completed, she needs dedicated students.

She uses the example of a project they completed for Restore NYC, an organisation that cares for and assists survivors of sex trafficking.

“86 % of our students are female. Restore NYC helps women who have had issues with sexual trafficking. When we understood the project and what they do in the city, their story touched the heart of the students. So they said ‘Yes we want to do this project, we want to help them.’” Sanchez-Fong said.

It’s not just students who want to volunteer for the ISLP either. Recently, the programme did a presentation at the American Institution of Architecture; Sanchez-Fong recalls how many important people from the industry wanted to know how they too could be a part of it too.

Alongside the volunteers, the ISLP relies heavily on donations of supplies from the industry. Recalling in horror the moment during their last project when the students ran out of flooring, Sanchez-Fong explains some of the challenges the team has run into.

“If you don’t know how to do it properly you waste materials.” Explains Sanchez-Fong, because, after all, her team is mostly students.

She tells me about an anxious phone call to the supplier asking for more flooring. Turns out she had nothing to worry about as they didn’t bat an eyelash and immediately sent more materials.

“Without industry support it would really be impossible,” said Sanchez - Fong.

The ISLP don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.  When I asked Sanchez-Fong why she thinks her students keep coming back for more, she said:

“It’s a great opportunity for everyone, we get architects and interior designers students and people from the industry to join in and to create a community. It creates harmony in the group, that feeling of community that you can’t get in a classroom.”

So what’s next? Sanchez- Fong tells me that they are already thinking about another project but ultimately that she wants to make the ISLP part of the curriculum.

“We would like to bring it into the classroom so there would be studio classes that will take care of this project, they would be assigned a project and from there we need to think about how we go about the implementation.”

There still seems to be a way to go. But if the ISLP can achieve as much as it has already, relying on volunteers alone, think of what could be achieved if the students were actually receiving college credit.

To find out more about ISLP, volunteer or donate, visit the FIT website.

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