Extreme House Makeovers by Local Teens

Extreme House Makeovers by Local Teens

A complete makeover by San Mateo's Jewish community teenagers.

by Rebecca Rosenthal - San Mateo, CA

February 22, 2007

Today's teenagers are probably the segment of the Jewish population most difficult to engage. Here's how one Chabad couple, keenly attuned to the interests of local teenagers, have found a way to draw them in, to the benefit of the entire community.

Lara Foxman’s dreamed of converting her garage into a safe play area for two daughters, ages three and five. But for this single mom with a full time job, it was far beyond what she had time, money or energy to do. Then Chabad of S. Mateo’s teen club phoned to announce that her family had been selected for an Extreme House Makeover – Teen Edition.

Extreme House Makeovers, Rabbi Yosef and Esty Marcus’s latest teen program, converts the interior design craze into a program that involves teens in good works and helps struggling families. “We thought it would be fun to let the teens paint, decorate – things parents would never let them do at home – and perform a mitzvah at the same time,” said Esty. Goodwill from Chabad’s first four Extreme Makeover successes has spread from teens and the families they help, to the local Federation, Jewish Family and Children’s Services and local entrepreneurs.

So potent is the allure of taking cramped and cluttered “before” settings to a picture perfect “after” that the program even draws uninvolved teens. Aside from a few Friday night dinners at the Marcuses’ home, Liza Brownstone, 14, doesn’t go in for much formal Jewish involvement, but helping a family – especially with decorating – appealed to her. Stenciling princess motifs in pink paint, deciphering IKEA hieroglyphics to build a couch, and sorting toys for the Foxman playroom was fun, said the ninth grader who attends Carlmont High in Belmont, CA, and an eye-opener to the quiet struggles of people who live in her area. “I know what other people are going through, but it helped me to see it first hand.” Asal Ehsanipour, a ninth grader at Kehillah Jewish High School, relished the atmosphere of working on the makeover. Girls sang along to Matisyahu’s thumping lyrics as they worked and laughed at their own first attempts to sew curtains. Chabad intern Devorah Leah Goldstein, project coordinator, sees the makeover group’s momentum as a doorway to greater involvement with Chabad’s other teen programs.


Ninety percent of the funding for last year’s makeover was provided through a grant from the Jewish Federation of Northern California. Frank Nazarian of Carpet Systems, Inc., donated flooring for the Foxman playroom. Teens and their families mined their underused furniture to fill in decorating gaps. Initial budgets of $350 per project proved too skimpy to cover the actual cost of redecorating the rooms. Painting an entire room looked easy, but the crew of ten had to call in a professional. Extra expenses were covered by trimming the makeover projects from ten to about seven for the year. 

Finding families who would not only benefit from the makeover, but also welcome the help is a project unto itself. “Some people are not sure they want a bunch of teens working on their homes,” said Goldstein, “but they are always impressed. When teenagers are working on a project to help someone, they shine.” Jewish Family and Children’s services suggested a collection of families: single moms, parents of sick children, new immigrants. When a family is chosen for a makeover, the fresh paint job and new furniture come with a significant fringe benefit of connecting them with Chabad of S. Mateo’s network of humanitarian works, such as their Hebrew school for children with autism and crisis counseling.  

By the time the tired teens finished the Foxman makeover, the garage was organized, cheery and smelled of new carpet. The laundry area, a mélange of half folded clothes, screened off from the play space. Freshly hand-painted furniture arranged to simplify clean up routines, invited play. The teenagers shut off their music and slid the last tray of Lego blocks onto a shelf. The teens rinsed their paintbrushes, knowing they won’t be dry for long. Extreme Makeover’s next project already awaits their decorative attentions: A family, who moved from Israel with no friends or relatives in the area, is expecting their second child, and they need a playroom and bedroom redone – pronto.

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