Like a triangle, there are three components to NW Furniture Bank, with 14 employees who help collect and distribute surplus furniture to people in need. Directly on top of the charity is Hope Furnishings, 117 Puyallup Ave., a for-profit business that sells new, gently used and vintage furniture to support the NW Furniture Bank charity below. With these two is a mattress recycling effort, located directly behind NW Furniture Bank, that also generates funds to help the low-income recipients sleep better at night thanks to donated furniture.
The stitching that holds this triangle together is CEO Bill Lemke who is now celebrating NW Furniture Bank’s 10th year and he’s feeling very inspired by all the positive feedback he has received over the years. In the charity’s reception room is a notebook binder that records all the reactions from recipients who were treated with respect and dignity while selecting furniture that would transform their dwelling into a home.
“When you read the comments it's just really heart-felt,” said Lemke. "One mom told us, ‘Now I can tell my child to go to bed instead of go to floor.’"
Many of the messages written inside that book are actually about employee Joe Goree who, like other staff working for Lemke, hired on immediately after getting released from prison. As soon as NW Furniture Bank recipients select whatever furniture they need from the showroom, Goree moves their chosen couch, chairs, dressers, tables and beds that he labels with colored tags and places it in a segregated staging area. Goree might also load the truck, immediately, if the recipient arranged for that transport ahead of time.
“Being here has given me an opportunity to see the smile on little kids faces,” Goree said before admitting the job provides him with a regular workout so he makes good use of Epsom salt baths. “Sometimes it hurts your body a little bit but you come back and do it again.”
As a furniture supply house, NW Furniture Bank addresses almost every possible life malady by serving customers who are sent on referral. Maybe a family’s breadwinner suffered a serious medical condition, or there was domestic violence, a fire or flood. Veterans Affairs agencies connect returning soldiers with NW Furniture Bank and other agencies that help people who just could not find employment or who made bad life decisions that caused them to become homeless, making referrals to the furniture house so they can get settled into a home again.
Then, there are young people who graduated from foster care. According to Lemke, depending on the foster parent, a student might get emancipated as soon as he or she turns 18. In that situation, case workers will make a referral to NW Furniture Bank where young adults can get what they need to set up their new home.
"We know we are making a difference in people's lives with the furniture because people are able to go to school and when you're sleeping you can study or go to work and feel better. You can also sit down around a table with your family," Lemke said
Providing some of the funding for NW Furniture Bank is the mattress-recycling warehouse. According to Lemke, 90-95 percent of old mattress can be recycled. The steel springs, foam and fibers can all be processed and reshaped into something new. Past the shipping/receiving doors for the mattress recycling effort is a covered warehouse with piles of inbound mattresses. There, workers disassemble box springs and mattresses by hand. There’s a teardown area for pulling off the quilting, foam and plastic. Then there’s another area for further disassembling metal and wood.
Employee Eddie McGill has been working for Lemke for a decade and said he really likes working in the mattress-recycling unit. Just like his coworkers, he processes 40-50 mattresses each day. "We process four-to-5,000 pieces (mattresses) every month. That's 40-50 semis full, if you can wrap your mind around that,” Lemke said. The plastic goes to recycling, the foam gets turned into carpet padding and the springs get coiled and might be converted into something like rebar.
Machinery in that warehouse includes a number of compactors for compressing and bailing the plastic and foam. There’s even an industrial baler for coiling the steel mattress springs and separately there are bins for the wood, which cannot be recycled so Lemke pays for it to be shipped and used as hog fuel.
Back inside of NW Furniture Bank, the charity receives a shipment from Ikea every week. Perhaps a fork lift has damaged a crate, or some other tragedy happened where it's more financially intelligent for Ikea to donate the container than it is to pay employees to sort through it, counting every piece to determine what's damaged or not. That tax deduction for Ikea means NW Furniture can glean brand new furniture, sometimes with very slight damage or none at all.
To assemble the furniture from such shipments, volunteers congregate at NW Furniture Bank. One night a week, there might be a beer party but on other nights a church might come and assemble furniture. Lemke said NW Furniture Bank could always use more volunteers and donations.
Lemke’s goal for the future is to maximize what they are already doing by providing the same services faster. He said there’s currently a one-to-two week wait time for receiving furniture and he’d like to shorten that. Currently NW Furniture Bank is operating at a capacity that serves 180 families per month.
“Our big dream would be to replicate what we are already doing in another community,” Lemke said. “It takes a lot of real estate to start something like this, however, so a lot of dominoes would have to fall into place for that to happen.”