Profile: Helping Sandy Victims Rebuild Their Lives, One Room at a Time

Scott Gurian | March 25, 2015 | Profiles, Sandy
Katherine Koehler and her crew make newly rehabbed houses feel a bit more like home

katherine koehler
Who she is: Katherine Koehler is Executive Director of Room in Our Hearts, a nonprofit organization that was created shortly after Sandy to help storm victims (and others in need) furnish a room in their newly rebuilt homes.

Age: 55

Hometown: Middletown, NJ

What she does: Koehler and her team of volunteers help Sandy victims by furnishing one room of a house rehabbed after the storm. Koehler gets the names of Sandy survivors in need of help from various social service agencies. Many people also contact her after finding out about her group through social media and word of mouth. She then meets with them to pick one room in their house to focus her efforts — usually a bedroom or a family room. She takes measurements and discusses their design tastes and needs. While the homeowner steps out for a few hours, Koehler and her colleagues get to work, decorating the room with a mix of new and upcycled furniture, accessories, rugs and paintings they get from donations and places like flea markets.

“Basically, we’re going into these homes of people who had no contents insurance. They’re devastated,” Koehler said. “It was our vision to give back, and we needed a creative outlet, so this was a great mix.”

How she formed the group: After Sandy, Koehler and her son volunteered with their town to hand out coffee to storm victims, but didn’t feel like they were making much of a difference.

“There were too many of us doing these menial tasks,” she recalled. “I said to my son, ‘I feel like I can do something better on my own that’s more impactful than handing out coffee.’ Koehler’s son agreed with her, so he rounded up a group of friends to assist an elderly lady cleaning out her basement. Meanwhile, she formed her own vision of how she could help.

“I saw piles [of garbage] the size of a house of people’s belongings: everything from mirrors to chairs to bureaus to stuffed animals clothing,” she said. “That’s when I said, you know what? I love garage sales; I love redoing things; I love thinking outside the box. I’m going to pay this forward and offer to each person one room to get them started, to give them a vision that this can be done.”

Her group’s impact: Koehler guesses her group has redecorated about 50 rooms so far, mostly in the Raritan Bayshore region, in towns like Keansburg, Union Beach, Middletown, and Sea Bright. She has about 25 volunteers overall, with about a dozen on her core team. She’s gotten some funding from groups like the Robin Hood Foundation and private fundraisers, but she’s hoping to get more donations to pay some of her volunteers and expand the group’s efforts, since she has a long waiting list of residents who’ve requested her group’s services.

On her approach: “I feel like we’re a mini design store,” Koehler said. “We’re definitely unique to each person, to whatever their needs are, whatever their color scheme is. Even if we don’t like it, and it’s not my style, we just do it anyway so that they can be happy.” The fact that this is sometimes challenging is what makes her job so fun and interesting, she said.

In general, she added that she tries to pick out neutral furnishings that can go with any style.

“If they don’t like the pillows that we use, they can change them out and make them more theirs. And we always tell them, ‘This is your transitional furniture until you can get your feet on the ground and you can change it out to what you want.’”

Her prior work: Koehler has a background in visual communication, graphic design, and marketing. She previously worked at a startup company operating an amusement park.

“I was confident in being able to start this business and get a group of volunteers who I thought had the right background,” she said. “I knew how to dig your heels in and make it work.”

While she didn’t have formal interior design experience, home decorating has always been a passion of hers, and friends have complimented her on her taste.

On the difficulties of working with storm victims: Koehler says it’s sometimes hard working with distraught homeowners still suffering from trauma and stress. In some cases, they’ve been promised so much assistance that never materialized that they don’t quite believe she’s going to follow through with her offer to help.

“You almost have to calm them down,” she said. “You’re like their little, mini-therapist: ‘OK, listen. This is going to be great.’ Everything is so out of control in their minds and they’re so overwhelmed.”

But once people return home and see the room Koehler and her colleagues have decorated, they tend to be incredibly thankful.

“One woman said, ‘Oh … you knew what I wanted more than I knew what I wanted!’” she chuckled.

“I think we make a big impact on their lives because it shows them that they can get their house back in order and really do it nice.”

How her work has evolved: “At the beginning, we were probably secondary on the steps of recovery,” Koehler said. “It was just getting people back home, and they still had to get their houses raised. But now it’s almost like we’re vital because they have rebuilt and they’re at that stage where now they need their contents. Now they need help getting themselves settled. And we’re still busy.”

Personal life: Koehler is a self-professed homebody who loves to spend time on things like decorating, fixing up her yard, and gardening. That’s why she decided to help in this way.

“I can’t imagine not having that,” she said.

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