Opinion

West Views: Tacoma Furniture Bank restores dignity, hope and stability

. Every now and then you meet people who are so good-hearted and so effective, you have to smile.

And so it is with the folks who run the North West Furniture Bank in Tacoma who decided to come up with answers to a few questions. What happens to families whose houses burn down or are flooded, leaving them with nothing? Or those who are transitioning from shelters or homelessness? Or struggling to get over substance abuse? Or battered spouses who left home trying to start over?

So they came up with a motto: “A place to sit. A place to sleep. A place to eat.”

As a result, thousands of children in northwest Washington have a bed of their own, some for the first time in their lives. Families have tables and chairs to be able to eat together, some for the first time. A woman who is eight-and-a-half months pregnant no longer has to sleep on the floor. “I can’t believe there are people out there with such good hearts,” she said.

Another woman, “Ruth,” lived with other people for 10 years before she finally got a place of her own. “They gave me a bed and then all the furniture I needed. … But it’s more than that. Now I have a sense of pride.”

Bill Lemke, who with his wife Joelene founded the furniture bank, got the idea in 2005 as a wholesale furniture representative after walking through a San Francisco food bank with his 17-year-old son Brian. His idea came to fruition after Brian’s death from lymphoma six months later; he had “nagged” his parents to follow through on a great idea.

With a lot of help from their friends and local businesses — the bank is run by volunteers and partners with 150 agencies, the Lemkes put together a large warehouse that sells donated new or good quality furniture to the public through Hope Furnishings and with the proceeds gives furniture to those in need or charges them a nominal price. The bank recycles old mattresses and spends $60,000 a year to buy new twin mattresses for those in need. It provides furniture, sometimes enough for an entire house, to about 1,800 families a year.

What children like best is the chance to pick out their own bed and chest of drawers.

The bank aims to restore dignity, hope and stability to families in despair. How much worthier a goal can there be?

A few years ago former President George H.W. Bush’s administration came up with the idea of a thousand points of light, reflecting the volunteers who make this country a great place to live. Some thought it was hokey and mocked it. Critics argued that it was an effort to replace vital government aid with private handouts and shortchange the needy.

But honoring and fostering volunteerism in America was and remains a necessary idea. In these troubled times of cynicism, burning cities and troops in riot gear patrolling neighborhoods but also neighbors coming out in droves to help clean up their streets, it’s worth thinking about again.

Other good people around the nation also have opened or are beginning to set up similar furniture banks, adjusting the mode to fit the local needs of each community.

Bad things happen to good people … and other good people are, more often than we sometimes think, there to help. We hope it will always be true that in America, where there’s a need, someone is ready to provide a way.

At a recent fundraiser for the Tacoma furniture bank — an auction featuring chairs fancifully repurposed by local artists that raised $137,000, Lemke, a fun-loving man with more friends than he can count, turned to some of the people the bank has helped. “Know that you are loved,” he said before clowning around with the auctioneer.

And the greatest of these is love.

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