Recent immigrants Samamtu and Ismaila Yaha were able to furnish their apartment thanks to The Barnabas Network, a furniture bank in Greensboro, N.C.
October 8, 2014 —
The Furniture Bank Association of North America has more than 90 organizations around the country helping out in their communities. Retailers interested in partnering with a local bank can find a list of members at www.furniturebanks.org
Not wanting to miss anything, Betsy Reynolds took her time walking through Chattanooga Furniture Bank’s utilitarian showroom with its scuffed linoleum floor and furniture lined up in center-facing rows.
Chairs to the right, sofas to the left. A smattering of tables and mismatched chairs off to one side. There is nothing fancy to the outdated tweed and plaid furniture that fills the showroom, but try telling that to Reynolds.
“Everything’s so beautiful it’s tough to choose,” said Reynolds, a woman who knows a thing or two about toughness. After living on and off in shelters throughout Tennessee and Georgia, Reynolds was finally able to find a permanent job last spring cooking at a restaurant. The job helped her secure a year-long lease to a two-bedroom apartment.
But a roof over your head isn’t always enough. When you’re trying to get back on your feet, it helps to have a place to rest them at the end of the day.
So on a Saturday morning before work this summer, Reynolds and her two teen-aged daughters were given the chance to fill their new home with furniture: a sofa, a dinette table with three chairs and—most important to the girls—mattresses they could each call their own.
Reynolds looked at her bounty stacked in a truck and smiled. “We’re going to be living good from now on,” she said. “I don’t think the girls ever thought they’d be going to be in a place where they could sit down on a couch and call home, somewhere they’re proud of.”
Reynolds’ story plays out every day of every week in hundreds of furniture banks around the country. But for all the success stories like Reynolds, furniture banks could use some much-needed help from the home furnishings industry.
A furniture bank is no different than a food bank only the organization provides donated furniture to people or families recovering from traumatic life situations or acute financial problems. Most furniture banks offer their goods to clients who have been referred by area churches or social agencies.
The furniture must be clean and useable; the mattresses are sanitized before being turned over to their new owners. Sometimes the furniture is free to clients in need, sometimes there’s a nominal charge.
“Anyone in need we’re here to help,” said Bill Lemke, who runs the Northwest Furniture Bank in Tacoma, Wash.
Lemke started the furniture bank in 2005 after visiting a San Francisco food bank with his son and other volunteers. “It just hit me that what they were doing with food—giving it to people who needed it so it wouldn’t go to waste—could be done with furniture, too,” said Lemke, a wholesale furniture representative at the time.
Lemke eventually quit his job as a rep to dedicate himself to the furniture bank. Today Northwest Furniture Bank furnishes the homes for more than 100 needy families every month. “I liked my old job, but it doesn’t compare to what I’m doing or how I feel today,” he said. “We’re changing lives here. When you give a child or an adult a mattress to sleep on, imagine how much better they’re going to perform at work or school the next day.”
Furniture banks and home furnishings seem like a natural fit for stores seeking an outreach program in their community, but surprisingly not a lot of furniture banks and stores have relationships.
There are dozens of furniture stores within a 30-miles radius of The Barnabas Network, the furniture bank serving Greensboro, N.C., yet the store relies mostly on hotels and the community for its inventory, said Erin Stratford Owens, executive director of Barnabas Network.
“For whatever reason we haven’t built the relationships with (furniture stores) that we’d like,” Owens said. “I know they have a lot to offer us—not just in furniture, of course, but in getting our message out to people who might have items they no longer want. We’ve got to do a better job.”
Owens, Lemke and other members of the Furniture Bank Association of North America want to make that happen. “When you think about it, it’s a win-win-win for everyone involved,” he said. “The retailer is solving a problem for their customer who’s asking the question, ‘What do I do with my old furniture?’ Your furniture bank gets some much-needed inventory and that will go to a family in need. Everyone wins.”
More than a decade ago, North American Home Furnishings Association (NAHFA) member John Klopfenstein, president of John Klopfenstein Furniture in Leo, Ind., partnered with Mustard Seed Furniture Bank of Fort Wayne.
Klopfenstein offers the services of his delivery crew to any of his customers who are having furniture delivered to their home. After setting up the new furniture, the workers will deliver the old furniture to the Mustard Seed. The customer gets the tax deduction and a family in Fort Wayne gets some much-needed hope in the form of a sofa, mattress or other piece of furniture.
“It costs me a little bit of money since the drivers are on company time, but this is my community,” said Klopfenstein. “There’s more to life than constantly looking at the bottom line.”
In Dallas, Freed Furniture has a strong partnership with its local furniture bank. The showroom has plenty of signage promoting the local furniture bank and helps customers arrange delivery of their old furniture to the bank, which assists homeless veterans.
The store donates damaged and discontinued furniture to the Dallas Furniture Bank. Store owner Howard Freed even hooked up the bank to buy product at better pricing from his vendors.
“There’s such a natural fit between the bank and what we do,” said Freed. “More stores can and should be helping where they can”
Lemke said there’s another reason for home furnishings store owners to help their local furniture bank. “It’s been proven many times over that the public wants to buy from businesses that give back to their community,” he said.
Lemke said store owners can invest a lot of time and effort—such as Klopfenstein offering free delivery—or they can simply put brochures for their local furniture bank in their store to let customers know of the service.
“There’s really so many levels a store can choose to participate in,” he said. “It’s just a matter of jumping in.”