margaret barnett
Photo: Richard Foulser
"Hang on tight!" Margaret Barnett warns, her voice the singsong of a Disney princess, if that princess were Southern, 56 years old, and about to drive a rented van over a curb in a crowded Atlanta shopping center. The van is crammed with the loot—dining table, chairs, desk, throw rug, lamps, end tables, household items—that Barnett has been collecting this morning in a fast and furious quest to furnish an entire apartment in a single weekend.

"I think I'm getting the hang of driving this thing," she says without irony as she plows over a grassy median and lands with a jarring thud. Oblivious to the chorus of horns around her, she throws the van into park, grabs her cavernous bag and crumpled to-do list, and gleefully asks, "What next?"

Barnett, who has run a high-end Atlanta-area interior design business, Barnett & Co., for 32 years, brings to mind the daffy side players in a '30s screwball comedy. Tiny, blonde, and birdlike, she has a habit of juxtaposing perfectly reasonable statements ("I'll meet you at 7 o'clock") with absurdist non sequiturs ("I'm still waiting for my breasts to come in"). But despite the disarming exterior, she has a velvet-hammer approach to getting things done. "For someone so small, I can be very persuasive," she says with a knowing smile.

Today's schedule has only amplified her slapstick energy. It's already 11 A.M., and Barnett and the van still have several stops to make—T.J. Maxx, a client's condo, a warehouse, and now Adore Furniture, whose owner has set aside several dressers and sofas for her to peruse. Barnett zeroes in on a brightly striped three-seat couch. "I can't wait for Natasha to see this! She loves color!"

Natasha Sessom, 37, is a 17-year army veteran and the reason for Barnett's white-hot rush. The women met through Hope Atlanta, a nonprofit that helps homeless veterans find housing. Sessom, who enlisted after her first year of college, started preparing soldiers for combat in 2001. In 2011, when her back and knees finally gave out after years of leading drills while wearing some 50 pounds of Kevlar and gear, she was forced to go off active duty and apply for disability. The ensuing pay cut left her unable to cover her bills, so she and her three children moved in to her mother's two-bedroom apartment. While serving at Fort Knox, she missed two payments on the storage space where she was keeping her family's belongings. When she returned and called to discuss settling the charge, the manager told her she was two days late: Her unit had just been emptied and its contents sold.

"I met her several months after that happened," Barnett says, rubbing a blanket between her fingers to test for softness. "Everything was lost. The kids' trophies. The Mother's Day cards with their handprints." A single mother herself, to daughters Sarah, 24, and Hannah, 16, Barnett felt a kinship with Sessom. "I couldn't turn my back on her."

Instead, Barnett made Sessom her client—the latest in a series of some 20 veterans. It's not work she's getting rich on; in fact, she doesn't charge a cent. She takes the fully functional castoffs of her wealthier customers and uses them to furnish homes for veterans who have nothing. You might call her the Robin Hood of interior design.

Barnett has always been a saver. Of old sweaters, vintage china, paper clips. "Basically everything I might be able to reuse," she confides. "I can't throw anything away!" A trip to her house confirms this, but if the place gives off a hoarder-lite vibe (what with the accretion of photographs, arty ephemera, old holiday cards, ten-year-old copies of Food & Wine), she doesn't care. "I could never simply throw stuff in the trash," she says with a shrug. "I always knew I was saving things for some purpose. I just didn't know what."

The answer began to reveal itself in 2007, after Barnett's 86-year-old father, Edgar F. Klarp, an insurance salesman and former marine, passed away. His funeral was attended by the dry cleaning clerk, the butcher, the postman, his neighbors, his friends, his colleagues from the office—seemingly everyone whose path had ever intersected with his in the living world. As Barnett took in the crowd, she felt unexpected comfort. Her father had been genuinely connected with his community. His life had mattered to others. "And I realized in that moment," she recalls, "that I wanted my life to matter, too. It was the start of an awakening."

At that point, professionally, Barnett had done one thing, and done it well, for her entire adult existence. But while she still loved her work, examining it through the prism of her father's passing made it suddenly seem if not trivial, then not enough.

A serious funk began to cloud Barnett's normally buoyant outlook. "After my father's death, I would wake up feeling really bummed out, wondering, What am I doing with the years I have left?" She took long walks, thinking. She sat by the fire, ruminating. Who was she? What mattered in the long run? Eventually she landed on the question that unlocked all the answers: Why am I here on earth? She knew it wasn't just to pick out fabric swatches and tile colors.

"Once I finally asked myself the right question, the why of it, the answer was so simple, really," she says. "It was what I believe my father was trying to show me in life and death: that we are here to be kind to others."

Immediately post-epiphany, Barnett was so fired up to help her fellow human beings that she started randomly handing out cash to homeless people. "It was stupid," she says with a laugh. "But I wanted to do something, and I didn't know what else to do."

She began donating her skills to terminally ill children, turning their bedrooms into jungles, racetracks, oceans. "If I made a lot off a professional job, I'd set aside a few thousand to do a child's room," she explains. "Those parents often have no resources for anything beyond getting by day to day. I'd create any fantasy the child had—it made them so happy. And just like that, I discovered this new element to what my job could be." In 2010, to formalize her commitment to giving, she founded her own nonprofit, the What a Life Foundation. She began asking her well-to-do clients if they'd mind being billed a few hundred less for a job and donating the discount to What a Life. Since the clients could write off the gift on their tax returns, they usually agreed. When they didn't, Barnett dipped into her own profits. "I realized I didn't ever need another pair of designer jeans," she says wryly.

Then one night, while sitting at a neighborhood bar drinking a beer, Barnett struck up a conversation with the handsome man next to her. He asked what she did for a living; she told him interior design. But maybe there was something in her face or in her voice, because he pressed her: What did she want to be doing? And to her great surprise, Barnett, taken aback by his directness, suddenly found herself revealing her true dream, something she'd never told anybody before, something she'd hardly articulated to herself—she wanted to find a way to help homeless veterans.

"To honor my father, and to permanently lift up people like the ones I'd been giving money to. And the guy said, 'I work with veterans! You should do that!'" Barnett recalls. "In that moment, everything clicked. By the time I got home, I had my plan."
what a life foundation
Photo: Richard Foulser
Above: Robert Carouthers' grandson, 3-year-old Arnez, has a room of his own and a bunch of cuddly friends to go with it.

The U.S government estimates that more than 50,000 veterans are homeless at any given time, most often owing to mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse. Veterans are up to twice as likely as other Americans to become homeless. Last year the Department of Veterans Affairs gave $1.35 billion to organizations like Hope Atlanta and other programs that provide stable shelter and supportive services to vets and their families. The initiative is showing promise—the homeless veteran population fell 8 percent from 2012 to 2013—but even for those lucky enough to secure housing, four walls and a roof do not a home make. That's where What a Life comes in, providing veterans with virtually everything they need to run a household.

The process starts when Barnett and her helpers pick up her interior design clients' discarded items, which she stores in a 5,000-square-foot warehouse where she's been squirreling away furniture for years. Then, about once a month, usually through word of mouth, she finds a veteran who could use her services. After learning about his or her needs, tastes, and dream items—a fluffy comforter, a flat-screen TV—she and her team deliver dishes, flatware, beds, dressers, tables, couches, radios, televisions, fans and desks and install the whole kit in 48 hours. If the vet is disabled, ramps are built, shower bars installed, kitchen cabinets lowered. And then Barnett decorates, transforming empty rooms into welcoming spaces.

What the foundation can't use, it sells in yard sales at the warehouse. The proceeds go toward goods like towels and sheets. "A $30 washing machine gets me enough money for a new set of curtains and rings," Barnett says, with the wild-eyed glee you might see on The Price Is Right.

When three-time combat veteran Robert Carouthers returned from the Gulf War in 1991, he didn't talk about his nightmares. When he jerked awake at night, drenched in sweat, and his wife, Tonya, asked whether he was okay, he told her everything was fine.

To cope, he drank. "The military teaches you to get the job done," Carouthers says. "I couldn't admit I needed help in any way." He became a truck driver, bought his own 18-wheeler and "worked, worked, worked."

In 2012, he says, he finally gave in and went to a VA hospital, where he was diagnosed with depression and PTSD. The diagnosis meant losing medical clearance to drive his rig. Tonya's job as an auto-shop cashier didn't pay enough to keep them afloat. They sold Robert's truck. Their TV. Their furniture.

"In just 24 months, we got to the place where we had nothing," Carouthers says. "We were sleeping on pallets on the floor of our church. I couldn't stand to see my wife not have a bed to sleep on."

Eventually, with Hope Atlanta's help, Carouthers moved in to a small ranch house 20 miles outside Atlanta, just barely affordable on Tonya's wages. But the house was empty. And the family had no means of furnishing it. They were once again sleeping on the floor—Robert, his wife, his daughter, and her then 2-year-old son.

One day a friend from the shelter handed Carouthers a phone number for Barnett and suggested giving her a call.

"I told her my story," Carouthers says. "First she thanked me for my years of service. And then the second thing she said was, 'I can help you.'?"

Accustomed to the tenor and pace of the VA, Carouthers was startled. "She asked, 'What do you need?' " he says with a laugh. "What didn't we need? We were eating off paper plates."

Only a week or so later, Barnett and her movers showed up ready to appoint the whole house. They assembled beds, unpacked pots and pans, hung curtains. They hooked up the TV on which Tonya would watch her game shows. They put up the mirror his daughter would use to get ready for work. They set up a big, comfortable love seat where Carouthers would sit and read to his grandson. "She could have delivered a Salvation Army bed and a chair and been out of there," he says. "But she went well beyond. And when she left, we had a home."

"My dad was like Robert Carouthers," Barnett says as she meanders through the warehouse, searching for lighting fixtures. "He had nightmares, too. He never spoke about his service."

She spies what she thinks is a brass floor lamp obscured by a 15-foot-high stack of furniture and boxes, and fearlessly climbs atop the mass of cardboard, tables and headboards, whereupon she vanishes from sight.

"Ooh, ooh, I found silver plates!" she coos from deep in the pit, tossing them carefully over the pile. "And a mirror! And a hammock!" She emerges carrying both, then reconsiders the hammock. "Somebody someday will have a porch and love that."

Like any seasoned decorator, Barnett understands implicitly how an object can inspire feelings of warmth and attachment. How a curved vase or a pretty lampshade or a dancing figurine can speak to your soul. How the space you live in is like an outfit you never take off, and how the mood it creates can either demoralize or soothe.

Veteran Frederick Stroud had been homeless for 13 years when he met Barnett. "It surprised me," he says of their introduction, "how nice she was." Most people are not as nice to the homeless, he knows. Stroud went from "not having a cup" to living in an apartment where his friends can come by to watch football and eat popcorn.

"I have this little easy chair in my bedroom that Miss Barnett brought me when she did my apartment," he says, then pauses. "It's special. And that was something, you know? To care about things again."

It is the morning of the Sessom install, and Sessom is beyond keen.

"I've called Margaret 100 times this week," she says, smiling and patting down her hair, which is pulled into a neat bun. We are driving to her new home, a bright three-bedroom, ground-level apartment in nearby Stone Mountain, close to groceries, a CVS, and her children's school. The kids are headed there with their grandmother Vannerettee Robertson. Sessom is so proud of them. Fifteen-year-old Amari is a cheerleader and runs track. Jordan is 14, runs track, and plays football. Kyndall, who is 9, seems in some ways the eldest, so focused on, well, everything. "She's my little overachiever," Sessom says.

Sessom glances at the passing houses, their yards tidy behind picket fences. "It was confusing for the kids to go from the life we had to now," she says. They were used to a normal American standard of living: new clothes, vacations, iPads. "And then suddenly some nights we had to sleep in our car. We used garbage bags to store our clothes. When that started happening, Amari said, 'It's okay, Mommy. We understand.' And I said to her: 'No, you don't. As a parent, not to be able to provide, to make your kids move from place to place, not knowing where they're going to sleep—it is most definitely not okay.' I didn't want her thinking that was her new normal."

Sessom sits up straighter, a habit of the army life she's led since she was a teenager. "It has been rough the last couple months," she says. "It will be a blessing to be able to say something is actually mine."

Thirty minutes later, along with her children and her mother, Sessom crosses the threshold of their new apartment and beholds Barnett's work. She simultaneously squeals and bursts into tears. Her eyes go straight to the striped couch Barnett chose for her. "That is fabulous!"

Jordan runs to a bookshelf lined with National Geographic magazines, pulls one out, and asks tentatively, "Are these ours?"

"He loves reading," Robertson says, smoothing her pantsuit as she takes a seat on the sofa next to Amari, who is quietly surveying the scene. Kyndall is already in her new room, sprawled atop her new bed, hugging a furry pillow to her chest.

Sessom and Barnett meet at the dining table and embrace. "You deserve this," Barnett says over and over, Sessom tight in her arms.

From the living room comes a small voice: "Mama, are we going to sleep here tonight?" Sessom breaks into laughter. "Yes, Amari. Tonight and every night." She looks at Barnett and grins. "I am going to roll on the floor when you leave."

Allison Glock is coauthor of the young-adult series Changers (Black Sheep).


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