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Community Build: The Making of Murfreesboro’s Isaiah 117 House



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Story by Lee Rennick | Photos by Erin Kosko

Located in an ordinary neighborhood in Murfreesboro, the recently completed Isaiah 117 House is a bit of a miracle. Begun as the vision of AlLee Dauenhauer in 2019 for kids going into foster care, it has taken three and a half years to complete. But complete it is, thanks to the dedication of the community, especially the community of contractors and building suppliers who donated so much to the cause.

Dauenhauer and her supporters began fundraising in late 2019 with a luncheon that drew 400 paying guests. Then they had another luncheon with potential contractors to see who might be willing to help them complete the vision. Once everyone heard the story of what Isaiah 117 House would do, they jumped on board the train that was building up a nice head of steam. Then, the pandemic arrived. 

“We kept doing what we could,” said Jessica Long, one of the two Co-Program Coordinators with Beth Bryant. “It is thanks to the contractors and the community that we kept going.” 
In spite of labor and supply shortages, their general contractor Jennifer Thibodeaux of T3 Construction Company, and Andy Engelhart of Englehart Construction, kept things moving along.

“Jennifer was with us from the start,” explained Long. “She sat us down and explained it all to us, including financing and the nitty gritty. Then she donated as much of her services as she could. And, she got many of her subcontractors to either donate or reduce the cost of their services.” 

What is Isaiah 117 House?


The contractors gave so much because they believe in the mission of Isaiah 117 House: providing a safe place for children coming into the foster care system. It makes the horror they experience after being taken from a home where they have often been abused or neglected a little less traumatic. Placements can take anywhere from a few hours until a few days, so the home lessens the stress and makes them feel wanted and taken care of. 
After extraction -- often taking place in the middle of the night -- the tired and terrified, often filthy, children are brought to this clean and colorful space where they are provided with clothing, food, a bath, a soft bed and love. 

Building the First Isaiah 117 House

Ronda Paulson built the first Isaiah 117 House in Elizabethtown, Tennessee, in 2015 after her family went to pick up their first foster child. Their call came at 3:45 a.m. Upon arrival at the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) office, they found a room full of cubicles and a dirty little boy who sat scared and alone with nothing but the too-small clothing he had on his back. 
It was then that Paulson and her family thought, according to their website, “What if there was a home where children could go when they are removed? What if there was a place with friendly, loving volunteers? What if it was a clean environment with clean clothes, baths, food, comfy beds and toys? What if, instead of cubicles, the traumatized child could see smiles, books and snuggly blankets?”

“The project took flight after they took on the care of their first foster son, Isaiah.” said Long. “Once that happened, she really saw what removal day looked like for him…She initially ignored the call [to build a home because she thought it was too big of a project], but then she ended up completing the first home…After she got that one opened, God said to her, ‘you only think there is going to be one house, you’re so cute.’ Soon other counties started reaching out.”

There are now houses in 12 counties, with 18 more on the drawing board in Tennessee, and others in eight more states in the south and midwest. 

Building an Isaiah House in Murfreesboro

Dauenhauer and Long had a similar idea to Paulson’s after having had similar experiences as foster parents. In the process of researching how to go about creating a safe place for children going into the DCS system in Rutherford County, they found the Isiah 117 House website. They also discovered that Paulson’s first house was highly successful. 

Isiah House has a three-fold purpose: 
– Reduce trauma for the children awaiting placement
– Lighten the load for child welfare case workers
– Ease the transition for foster families

“We focus on removal day and the three days after,” explained Long. “The kids need a bath, we give them their first lice treatment and we see that they receive the basic necessities. We also supply the foster parents with all they need to get started caring for the children.”

Every Isaiah 117 House is painted a pure white with a warm and inviting red door. The Rutherford County version is no different. There are two wings with cozy and colorful bedrooms labeled the “Sunshine Room” and the “Rainbow Room.” Everything is bright and inviting with cozy couches, piles of games, mountains of toys and all of the food that children dream of. Which is something most of these children have never experienced. 

“Isaiah House is meant to be the ‘fun aunt’ house,” said Long. “If you want a milk shake for breakfast, lunch and dinner, then we are going to get you a milk shake for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But after three days, that isn’t very healthy. They need to have a piece of broccoli, a carrot stick or an apple. We are not set up for that kind of structure…What we do eases the transition and the deprivation they have been experiencing.”

Thanks to the Rutherford County community, Isiah 117 House opened debt-free with enough in the bank to operate for their entire first year. They are currently fundraising to complete the budget for 2024. 

Funding the Home

After Dauenhauer had a baby in January 2020, and then COVID-19 hit, Long and the rest of their “expansion team” kept the train chugging along towards the build. They were able to bring Kiwanis and many of the larger churches on board. 

“Anybody that would have us [talk to their group], we would go,” said Long. “Then in August of 2021 we bought the land. And, we opened in April of 2023…Beth and I became paid staff members after we broke ground.” Until then, they were unpaid volunteers. 

While Thibodeaux acted as general contractor, Long and Bryant worked to get subcontractors when there was not one already in the plan. 

“For example, we didn’t have anyone to donate insulation, so I called B & M Insulation,” explained Long. “He came out and I told him the story. He was almost crying. He said he had just done a Habitat Home, but he said he would do this home, too…That is what many of the subcontractors did after they heard our story.”

The community of contractors and building supply businesses that came on board included Danny Mayo who did the concrete and rough grade work; Aurora Escobar who did the painting; Lowes Smyrna that provided all of the finishes like fans, light fixtures, doorknobs, etc.; Pella Windows that helped with half the windows; Lee Building Products that provide a discount on the brick; SashPro that installed the doors and then donated all of the blinds; and Mark Baker of Baker Construction who dug the sewer. Other suppliers included: Fred's Flooring, Big Cox Plumbing, SRM, L and L Contractors, Shelby Feathers Electric, Manley Electrical Services, 84 Lumber, Ratliff Tree Service, Master Fence, Parker's Heating and Cooling, Young's Drywall, Veterans Pressure Washing and The Avason Group.

“AlLee and I had a vision for the house, but did not use a designer,” explained Long. “We had groups come in and say that they wanted to donate rooms of the house. Some of those groups gave us a check, some of those groups had designers on staff or people who are really good at design and put the rooms together…We gave them a “look book” to show what an Isaiah House looked like and they ran with it. They all did an incredible job…Then we came in and fluffed by adding throw blankets and pillows. 

FirstBank donated the four bathrooms. Northside Baptist Church donated the “Sunshine” bedroom and St. Patrick's Anglican Church provided them with the “Rainbow” bedroom. 
“A sweet volunteer built the special house-shaped beds in the Rainbow bedroom,” noted Long.
The bedrooms are gender neutral, as they have a large number of teenagers who come though the home. However, when small children are present, they bring out the unicorn pillows or the fire truck pillows to make the younger kids feel safe and happy. Chick-Fil-A pulled together the reception/visitation room. 

“When we sat down and talked with Drew from Chick-Fil-A,” said Long, “they were wondering what they could do as an organization…We were talking about how with AlLee’s first foster kid, they were having visits in the play place at Chick-Fil-A for four hours long. And, that is a long time to be there. So, Chick-Fil-A said they’d provide everything for a visitation room.”

North Boulevard Church of Christ furnished the office. They did everything except the wall calendar, Long explained.

First Baptist Church gave the living room furniture, and Springhouse Church donated the patio furnishings and the special large wall unit in the dining room. The rest of the dining room was provided by the owner of Apricot Lane at The Avenue. Her husband built the dining room table by hand. 

“We are conscientious about how we use the funds that have been given to us,” added Long, “so we weren’t going to get the wall unit in the dining room from Pottery Barn because it was expensive. But, Springhouse Church decided we needed it and they bought it for us. We use it well.” 

To complete the kitchen, the organization created an Amazon Wish List and community members made donations towards the items on the list. The appliances were provided by an anonymous donor, including the washer and dryer.

Both patios were created from leftover funds from Northside Baptist Church’s fundraiser for the house. The turf was provided by a private individual and Keller Williams provided the playhouse for their Red Day.

Dauenhauer, Long and Bryant, along with a team of volunteers and donators, have created a positive place full of color, light and everything that a child would love -- from lots of food, to plush stuffed animals, to games, to little cubbies where they can duck away to play or read or snuggle with a friend. From the minute you walk in the door, there is a positive energy. 

Keeping the House Moving Forward

While the bonus room upstairs is filled with bins jammed with just about every item that one could imagine a family or child would need to make the necessary transitions, there are always more needs.

“All of the tubs upstairs have sponsors,” explained Long. “On each of the cards in the bin there is a person’s name and a phone number. When the tub runs low, they come refill it. We just call them and say, ‘Your tub’s getting low.’” They have a few more tubs needing sponsors. 
They do take new clothes with tags. Most of the kids passing through have never had new clothing, and they have never ripped a tag off a new shirt or pair of jeans. So, Isaiah House wants to make sure that everything is new so they can have that experience. 

Providing activities to keep the kids busy is also useful, like water balloons this summer and art kits and items that can be used outside. There is an Amazon List that they keep updated when there is a need.

Constantly fundraising, every other year they do a luncheon like the one that got the ball rolling in 2019. They did one this year in April. In February, they do “Spread the Love,” which provides card-in-the-yard signs with their logo. People pay for the signs to be put into other people’s yards. In July, they have a “Lemonade Stand Challenge.” People sign up and they pick a location and time during the weekend and then they do an old school “kids sell lemonade in their front yard” event. Some sell more than lemonade. Both Chick-Fil-A and McGuire Group McDonalds donate a portion of their sales of lemonade over the participating weekend, too. 
Another fun fundraiser is their “Sock Buddies.” Monthly donors receive a special pair of Isaiah House socks for their sponsorship. “They donate every month and we are very grateful,” noted Long. 

Other needs include more volunteers, especially for the weekends. And, they are always looking for places to speak like church groups, civic groups, and they have even had individuals have events in their home where they have spoken. 

To learn more about Isaiah 117 House, to donate or to get involved, visit them at https://isaiah117house.com/.

“When we say this is a house that the community build,” added Long, “we really mean it is a house that the community built.”

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