By Andrea Cale, The Good News Experiment
WALPOLE, MA — Similar to spotting a treasure during a shopping trip, a pink-and-white rug with a zebra-stripe pattern had caught my attention as I began a tour recently of New Life Furniture Bank in Walpole, Mass. The rug was one of hundreds of items on the floor of the non-profit organization’s donation center, a space featuring extensive rows and organized sections of clean sofas, polished dining tables, sturdy bureaus, full dish sets, cozy bedding, colorful artwork and a wide range of additional items necessary for making a new house or apartment feel like home after homelessness.
The rug, which had been rolled up with the type of care and precision that one would expect to find in a department store, would catch my eye a second time that visit when — near the end of my tour — a New Life Furniture Bank client walked toward the elevator bay beside a dolly carrying that bright carpet, her new carpet, and a variety of additional furniture pieces that she had personally selected at no cost to fill the space of her new home; perhaps with hopes of a new beginning.
“There are so many people at risk,” said New Life Furniture Bank’s Barbara Yates. “People are just one event away — whether it’s the unexpected loss of a job, a family illness, the loss of a partner or parent, or some other kind of catastrophic thing that can happen. One event can send people into such a difficult situation that they have to seek shelter and put their furniture in storage. If they don’t have a job, then they can’t pay for the storage and they lose that. Then they have nothing, and unfortunately that story is all too common.”
Coordinators of the organization, which is presently run primarily by volunteers, said it is important to emphasize that clients rebounding from homelessness or other life-altering transitions come to the donation center from a wide range of experiences and demographics. Oftentimes, it’s impossible to tell whether a warehouse guest is a furniture donor or recipient, they said.
“Homelessness is not a look, it’s a state of being and it can really bring people down in a way that is so sad, but stereotypes can be a dangerous thing and they surely don’t work when it comes to homelessness,” Barbara said. “We would really like people to see that the visual of a guy with a cup on the corner — first of all, he has a story that you may need to know — but this stereotype is damaging to the families who are struggling and the children who don’t want anyone to know. The stigma is heartbreaking and we want every child and their parents to feel the dignity and the respect that we can offer them for at least that hour when they are here.”
Laura Stanton, Volunteer Coordinator at New Life, said that the average age of a homeless individual in Massachusetts is eight years old, an unsettling statistic that has been fairly constant in the state for the last 10 years, and that a visit to New Life’s Facebook page helps paint a picture of the many additional faces and their important stories.
“We have quite a few single moms visit us,” Laura said. “About 10 percent of our clients are Veterans. There are 9,000 high school students who are homeless in Massachusetts. We often meet with elderly people who have no family. And we’re still helping Haitian refugees from the 2010 earthquake.”
The concept for their mission to help furnish homes for those in need took shape five years ago when Barbara’s husband, Ron Yates, who had recently retired from a career of managing a small network of companies in the Holliston, Mass. area, and his friend Doug Marshall, who now serves as New Life’s President, had a conversation about finding organizations in the area that accepted donated furniture since Doug had some items to give.
Simultaneously, Doug, Ron and Barbara were part of a group of friends who had done Habitat for Humanity projects together and shared a passion for community service. With steep real estate prices posing challenges for further affordable housing construction endeavors, this group of ready volunteers had been searching for additional ways to help those in need.
When Ron told Doug about an organization called Household Goods, an Acton, Mass. furniture bank where Ron and Barbara had donated many of their own items, a plan to take a trip there with Doug’s furniture developed.
“Doug was impressed with the concept,” Barbara said. “Ron and Doug looked at each other and said, ‘We could do this.’ It was the summer of 2013 and Ron and I had been having a lovely time going out to lunch and taking drives in the country and all of the other things we had anticipated doing in retirement. The next thing I knew, we became busy with our new mission.”
Today, on its fifth anniversary, New Life Furniture Bank has helped more than 1,800 families and individuals, and the organization aims to help 650 clients and their families in 2019.
“When we started New Life, we never expected the huge number of dedicated volunteers who make everything possible,” said Ron. “We have been developing our own community of people with a shared vision and huge hearts. Volunteers are engaged in rewarding activities and are making new friends in the process with folks they may otherwise would not have met. This has been exciting to watch.”
More than 50 volunteers are needed each week to cover a wide range of essential roles — from picking up furniture donations with the organization’s truck on Saturdays and accepting donations at their warehouse from businesses, universities, restaurants and individuals, to unloading the items, inspecting the items, repairing the items and organizing the items on the warehouse floor. There are volunteers who build practical, smaller-sized dining tables, items that are often needed to accommodate apartment space. There is a volunteer who curates donated artwork; framing the pieces and making them ready to brighten a new home. And then there are client hosts, volunteers who personally greet individuals and families at the warehouse and thoughtfully guide them through the furniture selection process as they consider what is needed and practical for a client’s new space.
Volunteers are committed to providing a bed for every client who needs one, and they have a goal to give sheets, comforters and towels as well.
“In many cases, for a child, this is the first bed to call their own,” Laura said.
The personal connection between a client and client host is a special and important feature of New Life Furniture Bank’s work.
“Meeting each individual on a personal level limits the number of people we can see in a week, but it is a key part of how we treat them with respect and dignity,” Barbara said.
New Life believes that this personal approach is one of the reasons why the organization was selected as a partner in City of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s “Boston’s Way Home” initiative, a movement to end veteran and chronic homelessness in Boston. The program, which has helped house 850 people since its creation in 2014, often refers clients to New Life Furniture Bank for support in setting up their new homes.
“For many, homelessness can be a one-time event, and then there is chronic homelessness, which is often connected with some other physical or mental illness that is part of the whole piece,” said Barbara. “Leaders of this movement to end chronic homelessness have discovered that by providing wrap-around support services when they move into their housing, it works.”
In addition to receiving referrals through Mayor Walsh’s program, New Life Furniture Bank receives referrals from local clergy and approximately 100 social service agencies, including 10 “core” or frequent-referral agencies including The Pine Street Inn, Rosie’s Place, Mothers for Justice and Equality, FamilyAid Boston, Hearth, Inc., HomeStart and the Veteran’s Administration — all big Boston groups.
With New Life Furniture Bank’s Walpole donation center located in a suburban area southwest of the City of Boston, the organization's connections with Boston’s big organizations addressing homelessness may initially seem surprising.
“When we created New Life, we didn’t realize we’d be working with clients from Boston, Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan or Lowell,” Barbara admitted. “We thought we would only be serving households from our local communities and the Framingham area, but the need is much wider than that. We believe that there are no furniture banks closer to Boston because of the high cost of real estate – and the challenge of attracting and organizing volunteers.”
“Our clients —and so many others —have a difficult time finding housing in Greater Boston,” said Laura. “Typically, our clients have fought long and hard to get a voucher for affordable housing. Many of them have been in shelters for three to five years and have been working to get the voucher, but that voucher doesn’t give them housing. They have to find affordable housing, and they often find it in areas like New Bedford and Taunton and other areas where costs are lower.”
New Life looks forward to continued growth, with a goal of hiring the organization’s first salaried executive director in the next fiscal year while maintaining its vision of being a primarily volunteer-run organization with a focus on personal touch. As demand for the organization’s services continues to grow, coordinators welcome more help from community members, and that can be in the form of volunteering for a wide range of positions, donating gently used furniture and household items or making a financial donation to support the organization’s mission. In 2019, community members can also look forward to New Life Furniture Bank’s second annual 5K trail run fundraiser.
And as the look of the warehouse floor continues to change — with items like the pink-and-white carpet coming in as a donation and then going out to a client’s new home — New Life Furniture Bank’s mission remains steady.
Ron shared the following quote from staff of Hearth Inc, a nonprofit organization addressing homelessness in Boston, regarding the impact of the special volunteers at New Life.
“New Life is perfect. After clients get housing it is not the end of the journey. Once their apartment is furnished they feel comfortable and it helps get their mind set out of homelessness. They can call it home. When they get housing they are happy, when they get the furniture they are ecstatic.”
More information on New Life Furniture Bank, including a list of the most-needed furniture items and the variety of volunteer positions available, can be found on the organization’s web site: newlifefb.org