Charlie Short, left, and Didi Afana move the last two pieces of the reupholstered sofa into the Connections drop-in center.RoundTable photos

Javier Miranda’s Thursday night upholstery class knows how to give worn or outdated furniture a new lease on life. Self-described alley- and thrift store-pickers, his students have learned how to recognize “good bones” in down-and-out pieces and restore them to functionality.

Mr. Miranda and class members applied their skills recently to the task of reupholstering 14 sections of a sofa, the equivalent of seven pairs of chairs. The worn sofa was a donation to Evanston’s Connections for the Homeless. Charlie Short, Community Relations Manager of Connections, took pictures of the bedraggled sofa to show his mom, longtime upholstery student Cindy Afana. His idea was that refurbishing the sectional sofa could be a class project.

In describing the project, class member Kathy Kahn admits that the idea of a “chair” is at odds with the notion of homelessness. The one suggests stability, the other, transience. The class proposed to bridge the gap – to bring some ease and comfort to those in an unsettled situation. Mr. Miranda’s immediate response, he says, was to say, “We can do it. No problem. Let’s do it together.”

Ms. Kahn and her fellow students were fully on board with the notion of donating their time and skills to help others. It meant putting their individual projects on hold – in a class they paid for – to work on the sofa. One student postponed finishing the bed headboard she had built and upholstered; another waited to staple the fabric she had designed to a scavenged boudoir chair. Mr. Miranda, who in addition to holding a job as a technical instructor has his own upholstery business in Highland, Ind., offered to donate the fabric.

Reaching out is very much in the spirit of a class in which Mr. Miranda cultivates community. Many of the students, including Ms. Afana, have been with their teacher since his first class a dozen years ago. The three-hour class is offered by Oakton Community College but meets in the south wing of Evanston Township High School.

Ms. Afana says Mr. Miranda’s students keep signing up because they appreciate his patience and also because in a given term they can complete one project but often start another they need more time to finish. More importantly, she says, “We get involved in each others’ lives.”  

“We treat each other as family,” says Mr. Miranda. He still regards former students, seven to 10 of whom have started their own upholstery businesses, as family. He keeps in touch, he says, so “if they ever need me, I’m there for them.”

Mr. Miranda traces his passion for upholstery to the day in Mexico when he was 5 and his grandfather called him from the doorway of his home to his little upholstery shop next door. At first disappointed that he had been summoned to sweep instead of play in the park, little Javier rejoiced when at day’s end, his grandpa rewarded him with five pesos.

“I went back every day,” he says. Only later did he understand that his grandfather’s intent was to pass along his trade.

Connections’ need struck Mr. Miranda as a way to begin sharing his expertise for the good of others. Connections has operated Hilda’s Place, an overnight shelter for 18 men, in Lake Street Church, 607 Lake St., since 1984. In the years since, the organization has implemented several other programs designed to connect people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness with affordable housing and help them move toward self-sufficiency.

The State budget crisis of 2008 forced Connections to close the daytime drop-in center adjacent to Hilda’s Place. The center re-opened for two days a week in 2017. In April of this year, it scaled up to five days a week.

In advance of the reopening, Mr. Short says, the organization’s Volunteer Manager began looking for furniture to supplement the folding chairs that were the only seating in the room everyone calls “In The Milieu.” This is the place where drop-ins and overnight guests hang out during the day while waiting for medical or case management services or the laundry, showers or food pantry.

Around the same time, Oakton undertook a remodeling project and was giving old furniture away to police and fire stations and not-for-profit agencies like Connections. The Thursday night upholstery class restored a tattered sofa for people aiming to restore their lives.

Their experience with Connections has led Mr. Miranda and his class to dream big. He says they talk about starting a sort of “club” where people who like using their hands could donate their talents to other worthy causes. Unlike the class, there would be no fee to participate. “It doesn’t have to be a really fancy place,” he says of the imagined workshop. “We can make it beautiful.”