More than 20 percent of Metro Atlanta’s homeless population are veterans. Think about that for a minute — brave soldiers who have spent a portion of their lives defending their homeland are now struggling to find a home. While programs and agencies work to secure housing for these folks, once they actually have an address, they often have no resources to set up their home. Talented interior designer Margaret Barnett of Barnett & Co. Design tackles this problem one family at a time through her outreach program, the What A Life Foundation. When her design clients long for a new interior look, Margaret revamps their space and asks to collect the unused furniture left behind after the redo. Then, Margaret swirls her creative magic, using those donated items to transform the residences of needy veterans into true homes … uplifting upcycling that repurposes quite patriotically. Today, learn more about Margaret’s mission and how to help.

Margaret Barnett, Founder and Chief Designer of the What A Life Foundation

Margaret Barnett, founder and chief designer of the What A Life Foundation

When did you first recognize your passion for interior design?

When we had a terrible house fire back in 1975. My parents said we could all redesign our rooms. My siblings were not too terribly interested in the process, but I was thrilled. Our family home is here in Atlanta, and not too much of my room has changed.

What elements define a sense of home in a dwelling, other than the people in that space?

You can walk into a home and feel the vibes. Things do not need to be expensive or “fancy” to make a room comfortable and livable.

Do you have some favorite projects completed by Barnett & Co. Design?

We’ve worked on so many lovely homes. One of my favorites was one of the penthouses at the Luxe, and the clients remain very close friends. Upon meeting them, we knew instantly that the project was going to be a success. Their trust in us allowed us to push the envelope in a classic way, while showcasing all their ancient accent pieces and artwork.

Margaret Barnett of What A Life Foundation stands in a warehouse of donated furniture.

Margaret Barnett of What A Life Foundation stands in a warehouse of donated furniture.

How did the idea for the What A Life Foundation originate?

I officially established What A Life as a foundation in early 2011, starting as a nonprofit that designed rooms for terminally-ill children. I changed a room into a barn, with huge blown-up photos of a fence and a horse, and installed bunk beds with flannel sheets in a cowboy boots pattern. Oh, and a wonderful room designed around the book Where the Wild Things Are! Then my focus changed. I felt drawn to assist veterans, and it’s been such an honor. My father had been a Marine, and he treasured his service. He also spent a lifetime connecting with our community, and when he died, people from all walks of life paid their respects. As I mourned my father’s passing and thought about what I’d learned from him, the new vision for WAL took shape. Each project I complete honors my father and celebrates the path he laid for me, allowing me to serve in my own way.

Who was the first WAL veteran client?

That’d be David — a singly guy who’d just sort of fallen through the cracks. He was given my name by Hope Atlanta, and yet it took him quite a while to contact me… his pride was getting in the way. Finally, we connected and visited his home. There was nothing but a chair and a card table. We got him all set up with a sofa, bedroom furniture and kitchen accessories.

How are clients identified? Where do you find the families that need assistance?

I work closely with Hope Atlanta, and they function as a clearinghouse. They screen different families for a variety of programs and connect me with ones matching our What A Life profile.

What are some of your greatest challenges of carrying out your mission?

Lack of funds. I’m thrilled to use donated furniture, but I have a thing about new white towels and new pillows and mattresses. We pay our movers a bare minimum and thank them with referrals of other income-generating clients, but, yes, we still need major funding.

What A Life Foundation storeroom space overflows with items to be sorted for the next job, but Founder, Margaret Barnett really needs funds and corporate backing to develop the project.

What A Life Foundation storeroom space overflows with items to be sorted for the next job, but founder Margaret Barnett really needs funds and corporate backing to develop the project.

Tell us how to help. What items do you need the most?

Gently used furniture, new housewares, lamps, dressers, tables and chairs — think of what you might want in a first home or apartment or to give to your child when they start out on their own. And financial donations to help with the items I need to purchase. If life were perfect, I’d have a part-time intern, maybe 15-20 hours a week, sending letters all over the country seeking funding and maybe keeping me more organized.

How are the financial donations used?

Many times, I don’t quite know what I need until I’m well into a project, and then it makes more sense to go buy it new, so keeping cash available is crucial. I usually need to purchase those new linens and also buy mattresses and pillows. I pay the movers for gas and labor. Hopefully, soon, a bit can go to payback to the company. I haven’t taken a penny of a salary, and have tried to keep everything going for the foundation just based on work from my design business.

Margaret Barnett tries to pay her What A Life volunteer movers for their labor and gas, as well as by referring them to income-generating clients.

Margaret Barnett tries to pay her What A Life volunteer movers for their labor and gas, as well as by referring them to income-generating clients.

Do you have any sponsorships or corporate partners for this program?

Nope. Not yet. It’s just me right now. Securing those resources seems like a full-time job, but some type of support would really make a huge difference! Don’t you think a big company would like to join our cause?

Describe your vision for the future of the What A Life Foundation.

To focus totally on the foundation, to make a living by serving others. To build a team and find the resources to make a home for more struggling families.

Margaret Barnett and two movers from Move It ASAP that graciously help her with her What A Life Foundation projects.

Margaret Barnett and two movers from Move It ASAP that graciously help her with her What A Life Foundation projects.

After years of successful work with her Barnett & Co. design firm, Margaret Barnett hopes to one day be able to focus solely on the work of the What A Life Foundation.

After years of successful work with her Barnett & Co. Design firm, Margaret Barnett hopes to one day be able to focus solely on the work of the What A Life Foundation.

How do you balance your successful design firm with the demands of developing WAL?

I think every woman is challenged to nurture both her business and her family. My design firm has not gotten the attention that it needs lately, and that’s definitely a struggle. My heart’s pulled so strongly to continue developing What A Life, and I admittedly haven’t found that balance yet. I’m open for suggestions!

How do you treat yourself? What are some of your favorite splurges?

Simple pleasures. A good dinner out or a Wendy’s Frosty. A trip with my daughters, or to visit my sister and mom in North Carolina.

Where can we find you around town — shopping, dining, just hanging out?

I’m a Decatur girl … I lived here way before it was cool. My dad worked at the Decatur Federal Building in town. My parents spearheaded the Twin Lakes pool. My family home is near Northlake. I went to Briarlake Elementary and ONLY made it because my dear friend (who has passed away) held my hand to slowly walk me into school on that very first day. Bless her heart.

What three things could you not live without, excluding faith, family and friends?

  1. A shower.
  2. Working in my garden. I can go out there and weed and see instant gratification!
  3. I don’t think I could live without my eyesight. That would be the end of me.
Margaret, you’ve taken an outreach project to a whole new level. Your compassion, empathy and enthusiasm bring comfort to those who’d almost forgotten the feeling of truly coming home. We salute you!
To learn more about the What A Life Foundation, including ways to support their work, visit whatalifefoundation.org. Also, check out the recent article about Margaret in Oprah magazine
Meet the inspiring women from all over Metro Atlanta in our FACES series!
The talented Catrina Maxwell of CatMax Photography captures Margaret’s lively character even hanging out in a warehouse and a moving van! Thanks, Cat!
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