The dining room at Sarah's House once was a nondescript room with yellow cinderblocks and bent blinds in the windows.
Residents of the homeless shelter at Fort Meade sat at long tables and fed their children from sometimes-rickety highchairs. They pulled their plates from precarious stacks on open shelves above a plywood countertop.
The room in the converted Army barracks has undergone a slow transformation since Thanksgiving.
A wall mural has become the room's focal point. It depicts a shadowed stone wall overgrown with purple-flowering vines.
An interior flower box on the window with a canopy marked "Sarah's Cafe" makes it look as if residents are enjoying their meal in a private outdoor courtyard.
New highchairs are stacked neatly to one side. A green and beige cabinet contains the plates.
Drewsilla Wilson, 24, of Glen Burnie said the room looks a lot better. "It's more inviting," she explained.
"And cozy," said Tia Lecheler, 22, who sat down in the dining room for a moment with her 19-month-old daughter. "It's a nice environment for your kids."
The makeover is courtesy of the Anne Arundel County Community College student chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers, which plans to wrap up the work by installing a faux tin-relief back- splash in the coffee-serving area before a June 21 open house.
The students received $1,500 from the college and donations from local businesses, including Oakey Corp. of Severna Park, Kitchen Encounters of Annapolis, Kitchen Tops of Glen Burnie, Expo Design Center in Columbia and Clement's Hardware of Severna Park.
Sarah's House is a shelter for homeless families run by Catholic Charities in five converted Army barracks. The Army charges a nominal fee for the property, and the Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services refers people in need.
Residents, mostly women and children, can get emergency shelter for 90 days or qualify for transitional housing for up to 18 months. They receive meals, transportation, child care and counseling.
In fiscal 2006, Sarah's House helped 59 single adults and 141 families with 278 children.
The dining room is the nucleus of the shelter, said Bruce Clopein, volunteer resource manager at Sarah's House. Aside from meals, the room hosts arts and crafts nights, bingo and seminars.
"What I like most about it is that you can see how welcoming it is," Clopein said. "They've done a wonderful job."
Residents dropped in to the dining room for evening snack time, which was moved outdoors to give the students space to work.
Melissa Thornton, 28, came by the dining room to get some milk for her 1-year-old, Hermione Thornton. She was glad to see the new wooden highchairs.
"That's good because we were always fighting over highchairs," Thornton said.
In previous years, the interior decorators group has taken on other projects, including decorating rooms for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's 2003 and 2004 Decorator's Show Houses in Baltimore. The chapter also collected materials and decorated a seven-room house for Arundel Habitat for Humanity in Annapolis in 2003.
With a small budget this year, the students had to be resourceful. They used green-and-white toile material to make window treatments. They cut out pictures of nature scenes from a calendar and framed them to decorate walls.
They painted the pillars in the room with avocado-green paint to match the window treatments. They painted squares of corkboard purple and posted them on the walls to be used as colorful bulletin boards. They also put up a menu chalkboard by the food-serving area. Another painted chalkboard will be put up near the tables for children to doodle on.
"If there is an unruly child or someone who won't eat, there's something they can do," said Janet Haddock, the faculty adviser for the project.
The college students gained experience working with clients and troubleshooting a redesign. They had to balance the community project with assigned work in classes.
For Judith King-Harmon of Baltimore, it became a family project. Her husband, John Harmon, a contractor, helped with the work and provided tools. Their son, Connor, 4, tagged along Wednesday to watch.
King-Harmon, 30, an interior design major, wants to open a design and construction company with her husband.
Charlotte McWhirter, 21, received her associate's degree in interior design last month. She will study for her bachelor's degree in the fall at Marymount University in Arlington, Va.
"One of the things that I liked was that it was really hands-on," McWhirter said. "It reconfirms that I want to do this for a living."
An open house will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. June 21 at Sarah's House, 2015 20th St.