Local nonprofit gives low-income students free room makeovers to boost learning

YDP Board working
Youth Design Philly

When the pandemic forced a transition to the virtual classroom last year, Philadelphia students lost the mindfulness of a well-designed learning space. Young learners of all ages swapped science displays, art projects, and inspirational sayings from a diverse array of biographical posters for makeshift study areas in bedrooms, kitchens, and basement couches.

Online education left no room for personal space, too, as many low-income students shared study space — and computers — with brothers and sisters, and parents working from home.

According to interior designer and liberal arts educator Kimberly Montes, a student’s learning space is critical to their forward progress. With that in mind, Montes founded and is now the president and principal designer for Youth Design Philly, a local nonprofit launched at the height of the pandemic that gives low-income students no-cost room makeovers and teaches them how to create a well-designed space.

Youth Design Philly

“One, [a poorly-designed space] can make a student feel less than,” Montes said. “It can give them self-esteem issues, which we saw during — teachers saw that during the pandemic teaching on Zoom. And two, it can really impact their grades, and I read tons of studies on how spaces can really change your feelings.”

Montes began her career in interior design at Drexel University’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, where she learned how to transform spaces while studying the effects of design and gentrification on low-income communities. She put passion into practice at a startup competition a few years ago, where a second-place finish became the launching ground for Youth Design Philly. But it took a few more years of research, and a pandemic, to see her vision come to fruition.

Youth Design Philly launched in June 2020 under a cloud of uncertainty, but the innovative nonprofit found its niche within a couple of months. With so many of Philadelphia’s students now learning from home in cramped, unforgiving spaces, Montes set about to create change.

She said a desk and a space of their own could make all the difference for some kids.

Montes scrimped and saved, held fundraisers, and took on extra interior design clients to raise funds for her project. To date, she’s completed six no-cost room renovations with Youth Design Philly and continues to raise funds and apply for grants, hoping to do more as the nonprofit grows.

Youth Design Philly

“I love when I get to do things that I would have never imagined in my house,” Montes said. “That’s the best part of being an interior designer.”

Creating a well-designed space is about bringing out a personality. At Youth Design Philly, Montes uses light to transform color and creates rooms that reflect the vibrant attitudes of her students. But she’s also an educator, using her nonprofit to teach students through after-school programs and summer camps. For example, the organization partnered with Bartram’s Garden, where they taught students how to imagine and build their perfect treehouse.

Today, Montes continues to focus on transforming educational spaces for Philadelphia’s low-income students through the growth and expansion of Youth Design Philly. Even as schools prepare to open their doors again to in-person learning, Montes realizes that students need a place at home conducive to studying — a well-designed space that encourages learning. According to Montes, students need an area where they feel safe and comfortable.

Youth Design Philly

“What I noticed with one of my student rooms [was] she had a desk that was very uncomfortable,” Montes said. “She would go to the living room and work or just get frustrated. And now that we were able to redo her room, she’s always in her room.”

“Her aunt said that she sees her [for] like 20 minutes a day because she’s always in her room,” Montes continued.

Youth Design Philly performs no-cost room makeovers for low-income students in Philadelphia. To learn more, go to youthdesignphilly.org or visit Instagram at youthdesignphilly. For contact, email [email protected]

Metro is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow on Twitter at @BrokeInPhilly