Carol Mai has decorated her Lake Highlands home using the “distressed” look, in which chipped paint and worn edges give furniture a sense of history. But this mother of three isn’t shopping at upscale antique stores.

“I drop the kids off at school, and then I cruise around looking for treasures in people’s trash,” she says.

Although her family teases her about her “trashing,” as Carol jokingly calls it, her attitude is pragmatic.

“We are so wasteful as a society,” she says. “I am not too proud to take something that’s still usable.

“I see my things as recycled treasures. Almost everything I have are things that people put in the trash.”

Of course, if you visited her home, you probably wouldn’t guess where Carol finds her treasures because she puts considerable effort into restoring them. Yet she never changes anything completely.

“I don’t want anything to be perfect,” she says. “I leave a little of the original paint or something. I want to preserve part of the find.”

Carol says she can take creative risks because she hasn’t invested any money in her furniture.

“If I don’t like the way something turns out, I can just change it,” she says. “I have nothing to lose.”

“Carol is very artistic,” says her husband, Karl. “Sometimes, she’ll bring something home, and I’ll say: ‘What are you going to do with that?’ But she’ll find a way to fix it up.”

In fact, Carol majored in art therapy in college. Now she works at home, helping Karl with Mai Plumbing Company. Since they moved into a larger house near Lake Highlands High School two years ago, she has spent a good deal of time decorating their new home.

“I recycle everything,” she says.

She has given the walls a “faux finish” by mixing the paint the previous owners left in the garage. The hardwood floor in the kitchen had been discarded after being used for a movie set. Even the plants in her garden were throw-aways to someone else. While Carol picks things for aesthetic reasons alone, her treasures serve a functional purpose as well.

“I have three kids, so if something gets water-stained, I don’t care. I just think of it as adding character,” she says.

Colorful dabbles of paint on the kitchen table suggest that the boys, Klayton, 11, Keaton, 10, and Kahnery, 7, have inherited their mother’s artistic interests.

When Carol discovers that one of the boys has drawn on his desktop, she just laughs good-naturedly. Little wonder that the boys and their friends enjoy playing at the Mai home.

Carol’s restoration work is symbolic of her attitude toward relationships.

“People are like the things I find on the side of the road,” she says. “If you invest a little time and elbow grease, you can find a treasure.

“The cracks and imperfections are what gives them character, and I hope that is how my friends see me.”