Columbia alum Kim Hannay’s nonprofit transforms lives one home at a time

By Nathan Sirkin, Staff Reporter

Lucas Martinez

Javy Rodriguez, a certified recovery support specialist for Above and Beyond Family Recovery Center, learned about Digs with Dignity through the center’s housing director.

“I was living at a halfway house facility when, last year, I was able to save enough money through having employment here at the center and get my own apartment. [The] problem was I had absolutely nothing.”

When Rodriguez left the halfway house, all he had was a microwave that someone gave him as a gift, a couple bins of clothes and an air mattress that he would sleep on in the middle of the floor. This is where Digs with Dignity came in.

Digs with Dignity is a nonprofit that collects used furniture and home goods from the community and then up-cycles them to furnish homes for families that are transitioning out of homelessness.

Rodriguez did not have anything to cook with, so he was given a complete cookware set that included dishes, pots, pans, cups, silverware and a dinner table from Digs with Dignity.

Next, he was given a bedroom set with a dresser, an office space in his room with a desk, a chair and plenty of office supplies. For the living room, he was given a love seat, some end tables, a rug, wall art and lamps.

A room Rodriguez said he was particularly excited about was the bathroom, which was re-done with an ocean theme.

Digs with Dignity works with a variety of individuals and families, including single moms, domestic violence victims, people who have lost their jobs; veterans and others. Once the potential clients get placed into housing through their social service agencies, their caseworker contacts Digs with Dignity.

The local service agencies Digs with Dignity receives referrals from include Catholic Charities, Above and Beyond, Back on My Feet, Well of Mercy, Facing Forward, Inspiration Corporation, Jesse Brown VA Medical Center and House Opportunities for Women.

Kim Hannay, executive director and co-founder of Digs With Dignity and a Columbia alum, graduated in 2015 with a degree in Arts, Entertainment and Media Management from what is now the Business and Entrepreneurship Department.

Hannay started Digs with Dignity in October 2019, and since then, the organization has furnished 72 homes. By fall, it is expected to have furnished homes for 100 families. It has been servicing about one family a week.

Rodriguez said he was shocked and in disbelief when he walked into his newly furnished apartment in July 2021.

“Every time I walk in, I am happy. I feel peace. I feel joy … Everybody that I have come over or everybody that sees pictures tells me ‘Oh my God, Javy, you have such a beautiful place. What did you do? How did you design it?'” Rodriguez said. “I always tell them these beautiful angels came and took care of my place, and they did this for me. I received such a big blessing.”

The perfect fit was no mistake, as each space is custom designed based on the client’s wants and desires, according to Hannay.

“We go in, measure their space, get to learn a little bit more about them and their journey to get to the space where they’re at, as well as the future goals that they have,” Hannay said. “Then, we get to create their space based on all of those things, so, creating a custom home for them based on their wants and desires.”

The team preps on Mondays and meets with a family on Wednesdays. On Fridays, team members move in furniture, which makes their turnaround process about a week and a half.

Digs with Dignity has a small but mighty staff with five official staff members, including Hannay and her two partners Jan Claibourne and Beth Wangman.

Claiborne, who is also a co-founder of Digs with Dignity, is a retired woodworker who does most of their furniture up-cycling.

Wangman, who has been in the business for 30 years, serves as the interior designer. She treats every client like they are one of the million-dollar clients she works with outside of Digs with Dignity.

The trio met working at Humble Design, a nonprofit with a similar mission of changing lives by furnishing the homes of families and veterans emerging from homelessness. They decided to take the initial idea and expand on it.

“[Our goal was to] really hone in on the idea of eradicating waste from landfills and really focusing on the idea of truly setting up these families with everything that they need for success,” Hannay said.

Hannay said the organization has an incredible volunteer base that makes the process work along with corporate sponsors, including Prime Edge, Dr. Bloom Plastic Surgery, Bowery & Bash, Compass, Studio Three and Salesforce among others.

Digs had only worked with seven families when COVID-19 began, which forced it to stop operations for three months from mid-March 2020 to June 2020.

When the team opened back up, it decided to continue their work with masks.

“Volunteering is an incredible way to experience the work we do, get involved [and] support the work that we do,” Hannay said. “Our warehouse is located in Bridgeport, so we’re very local to Chicago. We primarily work on the South and West sides.”

Volunteer days are on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Opportunities for volunteers range from working in the furniture warehouse, as well as helping move in families on Fridays.

You can sign up to volunteer for Digs with Dignity by using their form on its website.