Even in the heat of a recent September Saturday morning, peals of laughter could be heard from storage units C-1 and C-9 at Ahwatukee’s Armored Self Storage off 48th Street.
The happy campers were, in reality, happy packers, local volunteers for Furnishing Dignity, a five-year-old nonprofit that collects gently-used furnishings and household items and redistributes them to needy families and individuals to ensure they’ll have what they need to make a house or apartment into a home.
Sometimes it’s just having a bed of one’s own, or a set of gently-used dishware that can make a substantial difference in helping families re-establish themselves.
Furnishing Dignity was founded in 2014 by Ahwatukee resident Joyce Petrowski and Anita Buckel of Chandler. A third founding member, Lisa Campbell, now lives out of state.
More than 560 local households have benefitted since Dignity’s founding.
Petrowski said the impetus behind Furnishing Dignity is a memory she holds dear.
“In 2012, while volunteering for another nonprofit, I befriended a homeless, elderly lady,” she explained. “She was able to get into a low-income apartment with only the personal belongings that fit into a small suitcase she rolled with her everywhere she went.
“I remember she was so excited one day when she found an old bent up metal TV tray in the garbage,” said Petrowski, the nonprofit’s treasurer.
“I reached out to family and friends and asked if they had any home furnishings and would be willing to donate to help furnish her apartment. The response was so overwhelming and we were able to outfit her apartment, as well as help other low-income residents with some of the extra items that were donated.”
Petrowski said word spread and she was asked two more times to help provide furnishings to others moving into apartments.
“I soon realized there was a definite need for this service in the valley, and I reached out to a few friends and family and Furnishing Dignity was born in October 2014,” said Petrowski, a 21-year Ahwatukee resident.
On Oct. 12, Furnishing Dignity celebrates five years of service at their Cause for Celebration, 6-8 p.m. at Tuft & Needle headquarters, 735 Grand Ave., Phoenix.
The mattress company is a major sponsor for the nonprofit. In 2017, the Gilbert Tuft & Needle donated 100 percent of its opening day proceeds to Furnishing Dignity.
Anita Buckel was one of the friends called upon by Petrowski – whom she credited with being a “fellow professional volunteer” – to serve on the newly-created nonprofit board.
“Joyce and I had worked well together for eight years as volunteers for our children’s elementary and middle schools. The kids were moving on to high school when Joyce discovered this need in the community and wanted to start helping to solve it,” said Buckel.
The nonprofit’s name was carefully selected.
“We named it Furnishing Dignity because acknowledging the dignity of the human spirit in those we serve was very important to us. Our main focus became serving those who are actively working toward self-sufficiency, foster youth transitioning from state care, and the elderly on fixed incomes,” Buckel explained.
Buckel, a Chandler resident of 13 years who holds a master’s in English, recalled a study indicating that those transitioning from homelessness who received furniture assistance had a better chance for success.
Observing firsthand the reactions of Furnishing Dignity clients – both individuals and families – still moves Buckel as she recounts their stories.
“We have clients who are no longer in a shelter or on the street, but the lack of furniture serves as a reminder of the fragility and impermanence of their situation. There’s something about a furnished home that re-humanize those who’ve been dehumanized by the homeless experience,” she said. “One of our early clients told us he felt like a human being again.”
Buckel continued, “I’ve heard children tell their mom ‘Now I can have friends over!’ and “Is this MY bed?! I can keep it?” One young lady coming out of foster care said she woke up the next morning, ‘feeling like a princess’. She’d never owned her own bed before.”
“Recently, before we’d even helped her, one mom was in tears explaining what having furniture for the first time in two years was going to do for her family. She was looking forward to a place to sit and eat together, a place to host her son’s friends, her extended family, a home.
“Another young man said ‘Silverware?! We haven’t had real silverware in years!’ It is truly the little things that make a world of difference,” she said.
Furnishing Dignity is mostly donation driven, “and it’s definitely a pay-it-forward as it all goes directly to the clients we serve,” added Tamara Silva, a Chandler resident and Furnishing Dignity’s executive director.
Silva, who has worked with other nonprofits such as the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, said volunteers are key to continuing success and service to their clients, and Furnishing Dignity offers multiple ways in which to help.
“Before we can make a delivery, we need volunteers to help select, clean, tag and pack household items and furniture. Then on our Pack and Move Day, as a group we deliver the items to a family,” Silva explained.
“You really get to see and appreciate how a family reacts when you are part of this day.”
Selecting furnishings for each new home isn’t a hit-or-miss project at Furnishing Dignity.
One of Buckel’s tasks includes first meeting with the client in their home, assessing room space and asking questions about preferences and colors, especially with children.
“Then comes my favorite part: working with their preferences, size considerations, and needs. I love selecting the furniture for their home. I call it channeling my inner interior designer,” she laughed.
“Of course, we can’t always provide exactly what they want, but we try to select furniture based on their personality and likes and dislikes. I am not going to give a white couch to a mom of five kids, nor am I going to give a massive sectional to a single elderly man,” said Buckel, adding:
“Seeing the end result in each apartment is part of what drives me and inspires me. And seeing how pleasantly surprised they are at the quality of the furniture and the lengths we went to to coordinate the items is very rewarding.”
Several Greater Phoenix corporations’ employee groups and area civic groups like the National Charity League Ahwatukee Foothills Chapter are often on hand to help with the sorting, packing and or delivery, and sponsoring fundraising events to assist monetarily.
Warehouse space is at a premium as the organization continues to increasingly serve more families and individuals.
The five smaller storage units are at capacity and there’s a need for more space – one the nonprofit hopes will be offered them at a less-than-market cost.
“We’re currently searching for 7,000 – 10,000 square feet of warehouse space at a discounted rate located from the airport and east,” said Petrowski. “We’re currently working out of storage units at Armored Self Storage in Ahwatukee, and we can be more efficient and increase our capacity with a warehouse.”
Christian Colon is Furnishing Dignity’s warehouse manager, and as such is responsible for overseeing donation requests, arranging pick-ups from driveways of donor’s homes.
She also is a faithful worker bee at most Pack and Move Days.
Anita Buckel said besides the ongoing need for volunteers in various areas, good old-fashioned cash is always welcome.
“Something I’ve learned in this endeavor is that it takes money to do good. Sure, everyone will give you their used items - especially if you pick them up, but the money, that’s a different story. Every non-profit has expenses. For us, it is our employees, storage units, truck, maintenance, gas, insurance, etc. Nothing gets done in the U.S. without money,” she said wryly.
Petrowski said two more important needs currently is spreading awareness of the nonprofit and their work, and increasing regular donors via Furnishing Dignity’s Heart & Home Squad, their monthly donation platform.
“As little as a $10 a month for a year commitment will put a complete bed under a child – frame, mattress, foundation, sheets, pillow and comforter,” she said.
“And if a business is interested in supporting us, we have sponsorships available for entire families, for our annual Cause for Celebration event, and other ongoing concerns,” added Buckel.