Life House in downtown Duluth has expanded into the building next door, increasing its capacity to work with at-risk youth.

The purchase and renovation of the adjacent building, which totaled nearly two years of work, expands the shelter’s capacity to work with youth, its leaders say. Called "the annex," the new space includes a classroom and storefront, which will both open to youth this week.

Life House is a Duluth shelter for homeless and street youth ages 14 to 24. Annually, around 750 youth and their children go through its programming, which includes a drop-in center, shelter, mental health and wellness services, employment prep and educational assistance.

A “21st century” classroom space fills the top floor of the new space. Individual study pods with laptops, a coffee nook, smart board, seating and teacher’s office fill the classroom space. Youth can earn their GEDs or receive help with enrolling in high school, college or trade school via the shelter’s educational services.

One of the study pods in the new classroom at Life House. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
One of the study pods in the new classroom at Life House. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

The design caters to how some of the youth learn best — through collaboration.

“Some of our young people don't connect well with the traditional educational methods, so we're trying to do something different,” said Margie Nelson, community engagement director for Life House.

The previous classroom space was tucked in a much smaller, windowless room, which is now the site of a Maurices boutique and toiletry supply area.

Downstairs, shelves holding a rainbow array of candles and a stand displaying handmade jewelry line the inside of the storefront that faces First Avenue West. Anyone can walk in and purchase items or place a customer order online through a kiosk in one of the corners.

The store is run by youth through Life House’s Legitimate Hustle program. Its two businesses — candle and jewelry businesses — aren’t open for sales yet, but will be in time for the holiday season.

Life House Executive Director Maude Dornfeld sniffs a candle in the new Limitless Candles retail space in the expanded Life House. Purchases of the candles helps support job training for homeless and street youth. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Life House Executive Director Maude Dornfeld sniffs a candle in the new Limitless Candles retail space in the expanded Life House. Purchases of the candles helps support job training for homeless and street youth. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

By running a business, youth learn how to create products, build a website, market products, design a logo and more, said Executive Director Maude Dornfeld.

“They aren't quite ready to work in the community. But they do need a source of income. And so that's what the program is designed to do is to provide an immediate source of safe income while youth are getting stabilized and working on soft skills and gaining hard skills as well,” said Dornfeld.

The program saw quick success after it was launched, and the need for a bigger space for the program was evident, she said.

Moving the businesses to the annex frees up space in Life House, allowing them to run other programs out of the main building’s first floor, Dornfeld said. Relocating services such as showers and laundry to the main space will make the shelter more accessible for people with disabilities.

Seen from the Life House’s new classroom through a window, vocational rehabilitation specialist Maya French (left) and futures education case manager Amber Sadowski work in their new office. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Seen from the Life House’s new classroom through a window, vocational rehabilitation specialist Maya French (left) and futures education case manager Amber Sadowski work in their new office. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

"We can now ... serve more youth throughout the day in our education and employment program. Before we were using shared spaces, so they operated when the other programs weren’t in operation,” Dornfeld said.

Life House purchased the adjacent building in January 2018, Dornfeld said. Funding from the Duluth Community Development Block financed most of the renovations. Several local businesses also partnered with Life House on the project.

The expansion is topped off by a new mural on the side of its building. Youth came up with the idea to depict a phoenix, and local artist Adam Swanson helped them create it.

Last month Adam Swanson and members of the Life House community finished a mural of the legendary phoenix, a bird that was consumed by fire and emerged from the ashes as a new bird. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Last month Adam Swanson and members of the Life House community finished a mural of the legendary phoenix, a bird that was consumed by fire and emerged from the ashes as a new bird. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Nelson likened the phoenix's symbol of rebirth to the ability to overcome traumatic experiences and grow toward success.

After youth helped Swanson paint it panel by panel, it was installed on the side of the building last month. It faces the parking lot next to the shelter.

Youth will start using the space this week, following a Tuesday afternoon ribbon cutting and open house celebration.