Restoring the Least, the Last, and the Lost
Restoring the Least, the Last, and the Lost

By Mel McGowan

Who are the least, the last, or the lost in our society? Most people would say the poor, homeless, or prisoners. Some might even say the sick, elderly, or children.

Let me ask another question: What do you think about cafeterias at homeless shelters, prisons, hospitals, nursing homes, and schools? I think most people envision cold, stark, institutional-type places, bad smells, monotonous rows of benchlike seats, and people being herded in an orderly fashion. Given the choice, most probably would avoid eating at that kind of cafeteria on a daily basis. How about you?

Restoring Hearts and Lives

Jesus told us to invite the poor, homeless, and sick to the wedding feast. He said to treat the poor as we would the rich. He said what we do to the least of these, we do to Jesus. So when PlainJoe Studios was asked to remodel the cafeteria called Restoration Café at the Village of Hope, a transitional living facility owned and operated by Orange County Rescue Mission (OCRM) in Tustin, California, we considered these things.

We wanted the 300 guests of the village who eat three meals a day at the restaurant-style café to know they are as important as the richest people on earth. We wanted them to know they are valued and loved. We wanted the last to be first on this side of Heaven too.

That’s the mission of OCRM, which is the most unique homeless rescue mission I’ve ever seen . . . and the most restorative. It feels like a college campus when you walk into the Village of Hope. Leaders of the rescue mission believe in order to restore hearts and lives, they must surround those they help with hope and beauty. Every person who lives at the village is referred to as a student. They are provided with counseling, education, job training, shelter, food, clothing, and health care.

The mastermind behind this unique community is president and CEO Jim Palmer, who has been with OCRM since 1992. Where did Palmer get all these restorative-care ideas?

“I just followed God’s prompting and listened to him through prayer,” Palmer says. “I also considered whether I would want to stay here. If it wasn’t good enough for me, then it wasn’t good enough for our students.

“I remember one woman who came in with her children. She was so happy that she turned to me with tears in her eyes and said, ‘It’s so beautiful! Are you sure we get to stay here?’ That’s the kind of response we aim for!”

Telling the Story through Design

Space without design is functionable. But storytelling in design evokes emotion, shares ideas, and raises a person’s sense of self-worth. That self-worth is invaluable to someone who is poor, homeless, looking to overcome an addiction, or wanting to complete their education or find a job.

A space designed by narrative is not limited by culture or trends. I love this because it’s a chance to be unique. Anyone can create a cool environment, but no one has your unique story to share. In Spatial Storytelling, we talk about telling a story in three dimensions—setting, characters, and plot.

In this case, the setting is the Restoration Café, the characters are the students, and the plot is about the restorative care they receive at OCRM.

Our creative team came up with the idea of using bright, yellow stars in the design to convey light and joy. We added the quote, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime,” because it is so representative of OCRM. Restoration Café does not just hand out food; it changes lives.

In partnership with another local firm, Gensler, we designed the space to include porcelain, and faux-wood floor tile with colored walkways. A mix of high and low colored tables and modern aluminum chairs ensure the space does not feel boring or institutional. The exposed beams give the space character, and LED lighting complements the architectural beauty. The 5,500-square-foot space accommodates more than 300 people and includes a stage and sound/video system.

The signage now features a variety of materials, from tin ceiling tiles to wood cutouts. Instead of just saying, “Established 1965,” we said, “Serving Up Hope Since 1965.” We added creative art incorporating OCRM values using words such as love, compassion, grow, and inspire. We also included OCRM’s mission and vision statements on the wall and some inspiring verses. The result is a beautiful, engaging, and empowering space—not at all how you’d expect a typical homeless shelter cafeteria to look.

Many who are reading this work or volunteer at homeless shelters, prisons, nursing homes, or schools. If people are walking into cold, sterile environments, I believe their restoration or self-worth is seriously impaired. Think about the room where people meet. Is the environment helping or hurting their chances at recovery? If you think it may hinder, turn that space around! Share your story. Then invite them to the wedding feast.

Learn more about the Orange County Rescue Mission at www.rescuemission.org.

Mel McGowan is cofounder and chief creative principal of PlainJoe Studios. He is a leading master planner and designer of churches in America.

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