Special to the Philanthropy Journal
By The Green Chair Project Staff
Do you remember seeing your first apartment or house before you moved in? As you walked through the empty rooms, you imagined the furniture you had – or needed to buy – and where you would put it. For people transitioning out of homelessness, this is nearly impossible to imagine. Coming out of homelessness, these families have very few, if any, furnishings of their own.
The Green Chair Project is a home furnishing assistance program with a mission to “provide everyone the comforts of home.” We are the only complete home furnishing resource in Wake County, North Carolina. We support more than 50 nonprofit and social service agencies that are helping people rebuild their lives after homelessness, crisis, or disaster. We reuse donated household goods to furnish homes of clients referred to us by these agencies. Furniture and other essential household items are donated by individuals and businesses who are moving, combining households, downsizing or just redecorating. We only accept items in very good condition- items that one would be proud to offer to a good friend. Volunteers sort, clean and package items for display in our showroom.
Our unique model makes home furnishings affordable and attainable for the clients referred to us. Of these clients, 89% live under the federal poverty level and have few resources to allocate to furnishing a new home so they either do without, or risk cycling into debt for making purchases of essential items. Our compassionate approach offers a “hand-up” rather than a hand-out. Clients pay a small fee to select all of the home essentials they need to create a comfortable, functional and sustainable home during a private shopping experience.
The Green Chair Project is much more than a thrift store. The shopping experience occurs in a beautiful, welcoming showroom, similar to a furniture store. For many participants, this starts out as an overwhelming activity, as they have not had many opportunities to choose what they get – much less, what they like. By walking through section by section with their caseworker by their side, they gain confidence in making their choices, and by the end of the appointment, they are full of pride as well as a houseful of furnishings: a couch to sit on, a table and chairs to eat meals or do homework, cookware and dishes, dresser, bed linens, bath towels, and a lamp.
Partnerships are vital to The Green Chair Project’s mission. Rather than serving individuals directly, we provide support to agencies who have found permanent housing for their clients. Our staff nurtures relationships with our referral partners. The agencies work with their clients to help them overcome the issues and situations that contribute to their experiencing homelessness: substance abuse, domestic violence, mental or physical disabilities, aging out of foster care, unemployment or low-employment and natural disasters or fire. They also verify income, program eligibility and identify their clients’ furnishing needs before referring to us. Prior to The Green Chair Project’s existence, agencies scrambled to assist their clients with basic furniture and other household items. Now, caseworkers can focus on their program objectives and use their resources for helping clients with what they need to become self-sufficient.
“Community support makes new beginnings possible,” says The Green Chair Project’s Executive Director and co-founder Jackie Craig. She believes that innovative partnerships, a strong volunteer force, commitment to core values and widespread community support are keys to the organization’s growing success. A recent innovative partnership with the Food Bank of Eastern North Carolina allows us to provide a starter box of food staples and vouchers for fresh produce. Families love the idea of cooking a meal and eating at their ‘new’ kitchen table. Working together strengthens the resiliency of families striving to make a successful transition from homelessness.
Volunteers conduct 40% of the work at The Green Chair Project. Donated goods must be sorted and cleaned, and sometimes lightly repaired or repurposed. We have regular volunteers who come in weekly to work in the dish room, linen room or accessory room, and have many teams from local businesses, schools, churches and other organizations on a weekly basis. The volunteers know that what they do matters to our participants. They demonstrate compassion and love in the care they take in creating everything from dish packs to arranging the showroom floor. The work they do allows us to provide the dignity of choice to our participants.
Since incorporating in 2010, The Green Chair Project has furnished 2,200 households from 45,000 donations by 9,500 community donors. We plan to serve over 800 households in the next year. In addition to whole house furnishing, The Green Chair Project has developed the Sweeter Dreams Program to provide a complete bed for children who do not have one. Leesa Sleep Mattress Company, Ashley Furniture and the Realtor Foundation of Wake County are significant partners in this endeavor. A 2015 study by North Carolina State University estimated that 5000 children in Wake County do not have a bed of their own to sleep in. With generous community support, we have distributed over 350 new beds year-to-date.
Another arm of The Green Chair Project is our Retail Store. Occasionally we receive furnishing donations from high-end stores, hotel groups and community members that are more suitable for retail than the apartments or homes of our agency families. For example, we never put barware on the showroom floor since we work with substance abuse agencies. Some items are too large for the average 800 square foot apartments which are commonly obtained. Retail sales are held periodically during the year and make up about one quarter of our budget. If we get higher end items, we believe it is more beneficial to resell and put the money directly into program service.
Through our partnerships with local agencies and with support from community donors, The Green Chair Project is helping families to continue making strides in building stable lives after experiencing homelessness or a crisis. We provide a dignified experience of selecting lovingly curated furniture and household items that they need, moving them along in their journey to self-sufficiency. Jackie Craig says, “Until you have no furniture, you cannot understand the profound importance and dignity of having a place to sit down. The Green Chair Project provides that in a unique and respectful way to every family we serve. Everyone has a vision of home and we are here to help bring that vision to life.”