Daniel is an elderly homeless man who finally received assistance for subsidized housing. The Guiterrez family – parents and four children – have been living in a single rented room in a mobile home. Lakiyah and her children are fleeing domestic violence. The Mitchell family had an infestation of bedbugs. The Adams family lost their possessions in a fire. Marina is coming home from the hospital to a broken down mattress that sits on the floor.
The stories of people in dire need of furniture in Alamance County, N.C., are varied and heart-wrenching – coming from homelessness, fleeing domestic violence, house fires, bed bug infestations, physical or mental illness, and extreme poverty.
Volunteers at the furniture ministry of First Presbyterian Church of Burlington have their own varied and inspiring stories: retirees with a surplus of energy and talents for organization, woodworking and personal relations; and young people who like the rewards of spending one Saturday morning a month delivering furniture to those in need.
“The ministry is a great benefit to us, and energizing for our church,” says Nan Perkins, a ruling elder at First Presbyterian and one of five volunteers who answer referral requests from local agencies. “Different people get to exercise their different talents: refinishing furniture, rebuild tables, procure linens and other items, wash and fold donated items, work with clients and organize work days.”
The ministry was inspired by a parishioner whose public school pupil’s family was left homeless after a fire in 2003. Suspecting that fellow church members had spare or leftover basic furniture and furnishings available, this pioneer organizer quickly marshaled interest in responding to her student’s need. And just like the biblical example of the multiplication of loaves and fishes, plenty of home goods were made available to this initial family, and much was left to distribute even further. Since the mission was born, the furniture ministry has grown into a thriving and sustainable outreach that assisted 175 families including 288 children in 2014, three times the number of families who were helped in 2011.
The stated mission of the ministry is “to provide new or gently used furniture to those in need, treating each client graciously, with Christian hospitality.” The top priority is to get children off the floor and into warm, conformable beds. In 2014, 288 beds with bedding – one for each child served – were delivered in 2014.
Perkins says the children’s bed and mattress distribution is a highlight for everyone. “One of the joys of this ministry is to see how happy and excited the children are to receive their own bed – many of them jump in and insist on helping to unload their bed from the truck.”
When the church undertook a campus expansion, room for the furniture ministry was allocated in the newly constructed outreach center. Meals on Wheels and a Women’s Resource Center are located on the ground floor of the building; warehouse space for the furniture ministry occupies the basement.
The ministry accepts donated furniture in good condition, storing it in the warehouse and in space donated by church members. One Saturday a month the furniture is delivered to families who have been referred by social workers at partner agencies in Alamance County. Families who are able are allowed to pick up their own items.
“It’s a project most any church can undertake with a little planning and cooperation,” says David Vaughan, a ruling elder at First Presbyterian and volunteer with the furniture ministry.
That cooperation is show in the way the ministry is completely volunteer run. A committee of ten manages the considerable day-to-day work of assisting clients, picking up donated items and planning the work days which draw an additional 15-20 volunteers.
The rapid growth of the furniture ministry is attributed to congregational and community support. The ministry’s operating budget funded by the church has grown from $500 annually to $6,000 in 2014. Elon University, Alamance Regional Medical Center, and other organizations have been generous in donating furniture they are replacing. Additionally, Elon University runs a “Don’t trash it,” campaign at the end of the school year to collect used linens and furniture that students aren’t taking with them.
In 2014 First Presbyterian donated $3,000 of their mission budget to the furniture ministry. In 2015 the church is doubling that amount and continues to see the ministry as a mission priority.
“The best part about the furniture ministry is realizing you’re meeting a real need,” says Perkins. “Our clients are truly in need and truly can’t afford to outfit their homes. As a homemaker myself, one who takes pride in their home, it’s a gift to be able to help people set up their homes.”
Editor’s Note: Names of furniture ministry clients were changed to protect their privacy.