A chair is not just a chair and a bed is not just a bed. For struggling families, furniture they receive from a Vancouver nonprofit gives them hope, dignity and stability.
Bill Lemke, founder of the NW Furniture Bank, said his organization gives furniture to people through referrals from local social service agencies, supplying them with whatever they need to make a house a home.
“Furniture is more than a chair. It’s comfort, it’s family,” Lemke said. “That’s our mission statement: Hope, dignity and stability. Stability comes from having furniture, hope that somebody cares for you, and dignity because we let the client pick it out.”
Lemke founded NW Furniture Bank in Tacoma in 2007 and opened a downtown Vancouver store in 2019, which earlier this month moved to a new location at 13503 S.E. Mill Plain Blvd., formerly Spanky’s consignment store.
By recycling donated furniture to people in need, NW Furniture Bank serves victims of domestic abuse, people with losses from fire or other disasters, foster children, and families coming out of homelessness trying to rebuild their lives. Having furniture reduces chances of returning to homelessness by 50 percent, Lemke said.
But more donations, both furniture and cash, are desperately needed. Donation options are listed at nwfurniturebank.org, and recurring monthly donations would also help ensure a consistent revenue stream.
“In Vancouver, we are serving 40 families a month, about 480 a year, and that means that we need 480 sofas every year just to give away, and 480 dining tables, lamps and more,” he said.
Families helped by NW Furniture Bank are deeply appreciative, as shown by their testimonials.
“Your help helped us get back on our feet after a total loss fire in 2019,” one client wrote. “My children and I can’t thank you enough.”
Another wrote that she and her husband had lived in tents for six years before getting into an apartment, but had no furniture.
“Starting over with absolutely nothing was a bit scary, but all our fears have been washed away,” she wrote.
Lemke said the furniture bank has received help from many local agencies, including the Council for the Homeless, Share Vancouver, Divine Consign Furniture, and the YMCA.
And when the furniture bank had to leave its downtown location due to the sale of the building, the Oliva family of HiSchool Pharmacy helped find the new location at a reasonable rent. But a future goal is for the furniture bank to buy its own building, he said.
NW Furniture Bank is funded by donations and by running an upscale retail furniture store in its front showroom with the furniture bank in the back. It also supports a mattress recycling business in Tacoma to make money, but mattresses for those in need are in short supply.
“We have to buy new mattresses because we don’t get enough good ones,” he said.
Because it’s been around longer, the Tacoma furniture bank gets plenty of donations, but much more is needed here, Lemke said.
“We need donations of quality furniture (to sell). That will give us money, and we can buy more mattresses,” he said. Mattresses cost the furniture bank about $90,000 a year, but everyone, especially kids, needs a bed of their own, he said.
“They’re not going to do well in school, or work or therapy, if they’re sleeping on the floor or a sofa.”
Lemke was in the wholesale furniture business for more than 30 years and had thought about starting a furniture bank. He decided to do it after his 17-year-old son, who had encouraged the idea, passed away from lymphoma in 2005.
Lemke and his wife took a trip to Florida to help them cope with their loss, where they happened upon a furniture bank in Orlando.
They explored the idea when they got home to Pierce County, and the Old Cannery Furniture Store in Sumner, which had raised $30,000 for their son’s medical expenses, urged Lemke to use it for “this furniture bank you’ve been talking about.”
“So I got a 501(c)(3) application and got started with just a bunch of volunteers and a borrowed truck,” he said.
Most furniture banks are on the East Coast with less than a dozen in the West. Lemke said he hopes the movement will spread.
“It’s a big circle of life, because say you need to get rid of a chair, you can come buy a new chair from us and donate your old chair, and that’s going to a family, and it’s really changing the community,” he said. “The whole thing kind of works in a neat way.”