By Mariah Beckman
A man’s home is his castle. Perhaps no one knows this as well as Bill and Joelene Lemke, founders of the Northwest Furniture Bank in Tacoma.
Bill Lemke, a long-time resident of Gig Harbor, worked as a wholesale furniture rep by trade before he served at the helm of this successful South Sound charity. He had made a career out of traveling the West Coast from Alaska to Hawaii back then, creating and delivering furniture to national brands and retailers. The man made it his business to sell a living room as a lifestyle.
At home, Bill, his wife and his son, Brian, were active members of their church and community. In 2005, Bill and Brian were volunteering their time to the San Francisco Food Bank when the idea for the furniture bank was born.
There are many services, young Brian pointed out, for those who need food, clothing or help with utilities. For families who have lost all of their furniture to natural disasters, who were forced to flee unsafe living conditions or whose homes had been taken from them, there is no relief to fill the void of an empty house.
“Why couldn’t we do it? Brian asked in the summer of 2005. After all, Bill’s connections to mattress companies, department stores and furniture retailers put the family in a unique position to link those who had nothing to those who had something to give.
In the fall of that same year, Brian Lemke passed away at 17 from lymphoma. With the sudden loss of their son, the many lives that Bill had touched through his church and his work rallied. “People tried to show their support in many different ways,” says Bill. One of those kind gestures in particular gave legs to the concept of what is now the Northwest Furniture Bank.
Bill and his son had mentioned the idea of the bank to their friends and family, some of them at the Old Cannery in Sumner. It made sense: Lemke, thanks to his network of organizations involved in furniture sale and distribution, knew how to get his hands on surplus, overstock furniture. Why not, the CFO of the Cannery prodded. The couple still couldn’t see a furniture bank in their future.
It wasn’t until the couple visited an established furniture bank called Mustard Seed in Florida, almost on a whim, that the furniture bank became more of a reality than a caprice. “Mustard Seed convicted us,” says Bill of their visit. “The CFO at the time said, ‘If you don’t do this, you’ll probably be the two most miserable people in the world.’ And here we are.”
The Old Cannery donated the initial space and some startup funds to get the Northwest Furniture Bank up and running. The warehouse was only a modest 1,100-square-feet — that’s half the size of the average American home. But it was a something. The organization would need transportation, though. That’s when Bill got what he says was the best donation he has ever received: a moving truck.
“The donation I got, the one that really started this whole thing,” he explains, “was a local business saying, ‘I get what you’re doing, and I want to help you with the truck.’ He provided us with a brand new box truck. And, that was the start. Rick Ellingson of Bargreen Ellingson, a friend from the YMCA, made that happen.”
“And, that’s how I got started: borrowed a guy’s truck, bought six twin mattresses and delivered them to a little apartment on Eighty-Second. It was my wife, myself, my father-in-law, and whatever derelict friends we had that wanted to have a beer with me at one o’clock. In 2007, we served 34 people all year long; in 2008 it was 347.”
Make Yourself at Home
The bank began in 2007 with a box van, a vision, and a little help from some friends from church and connections from work. Fast forward to 2015: today, the organization has served more than 15,000 individuals and families in need, and has donated more than $6 million dollars’ worth of furniture.
Northwest Furniture Bank works in tandem with some of the most effective community outreach programs in the South Sound. At last count, the Lemke’s have partnerships with over 120 organizations, including:
- Catholic Community Services
- Helping Hand House
- Tacoma Rescue Mission
- Lakewood Area Shelter Association
- Vincent de Paul
- Associated Ministries of Tacoma
- Courage 360
- Exodus Housing
- Puyallup Tribe Children’s Services
Bill Lemke is presently a vital cog in the national leadership committee for the Furniture Bank Association of North America. Together with 35 other banks across the US and Canada, these organizations aim to bring dignity and even some semblance of comfort into the lives of individuals and families in transition around the world.
At its core, Northwest Furniture Bank recognizes that having a safe, clean environment is key to rebooting when life hands anyone lemons. Some of the clients that are referred to the bank are in such dire straits that their household has no beds, no kitchen table, and sometimes no furniture at all. Since 2007, Bill and his wife Joelene have sent South Sound families home with more than 100,000 pieces of furniture.
Here’s How It Works:
Clients who shop at the bank receive a referral from one of the Northwest Furniture Bank’s partner organizations. Then, for a set fee of $75, the bank offers visitors a one-stop shop to gather everything they might need: bedframes, couches, a table, chairs, and even peripheral items like a dresser, floor lamp and bookcase. Each case is unique, but every applicant is approved for, at the very least, a bed.
Children receive new twin mattresses and frames in nearly every case, and the average value of the furniture that walks out the door with clients is $2,000. That number, of course, is the thrift-store value of these items; remember, many of these items are actually brand new.
At Northwest Furniture Bank, visitors receive the assistance of a personal shopper. These volunteers help to streamline the process of furniture selection, walking visitors from section-to-section and pointing out combinations and pairings that complement each other.
Out of House and Home
Northwest Furniture Banks partners with enough organizations and individuals that the agency has ample new and gently used furniture to go around. Hope Furnishings, the ground-level storefront for the bank that is open to the public, may be the best-kept secret in home décor and furniture in all of the Sound Sound.
Northwest Furniture Bank began the venture in an effort to connect consumers to the high-end pieces that pass through its doors at deep discounts. Bill reports that he sees mattresses and furniture that he has designed or helped introduce into the Pacific Northwest find a home on the sales floor of Hope Furnishings.
All of the proceeds for these goods, from leather sofas and artsy chairs to wardrobes and dining room sets, goes directly into the operational expenses of the Northwest Furniture Bank. Don’t feel like making the trip? No problem: anyone can check out most of Hope Furnishing’s most prized wares online.
The bank doesn’t just outfit new homes and fresh starts, either. The organization also offers rehabilitation services through its affiliation with the Spring Back Mattress Recycling program. Ninety percent of a mattress can be recycled, Bill explains. For those mattresses that cannot be salvaged or donated, that is precisely what Northwest Furniture Bank does. A team of volunteers and a handful of paid workers sift through a volume of donations every weekday, separating the usable beds and frames from those that are unsalvageable.
Since 2013, the Northwest Furniture Bank has recycled 50,000 mattresses, disposing responsibly of the foam and steel that might otherwise take up precious space in Washington’s landfills. To get an idea of what this kind of impact looks like, these mattresses would fill 463 semis.
Best of all, the labor for these tasks is performed by people who otherwise have a hard time finding work. For example, Progress House connects some men who were previously incarcerated with the organization. After committing long hours and many months to what can shape up to be pretty hard labor, these men are often hired on as full-time help.
No Place Like Home
The Northwest Furniture Bank hasn’t quite hit its 10-year anniversary, but it continues to grow exponentially. The company is always accepting donations of furniture, but cash donations are an enormous help, too. Since the bank creates a direct line between those in need and the goods that they seek, this is a stellar place to donate furniture that will make an immediate impact on lives in the South Sound community. Check out Northwest Furniture Bank’s events page for opportunities to support the bank in your community, and be sure to consider Tacoma’s outstanding furniture recycling program the next time that you’re looking to divest yourself of some home furnishings. If in doubt as to what kind of direct impact your donation can have, check out a few of the heartfelt notes below, which clients have left at Northwest Furniture Bank after their shopping experience.
“Thank you so much for your help. Me and my children were sleeping on the floor. With your help we will now be able to sleep on a bed and eat at a table. Thank you so much.”
“NW Furniture thank you very much for helping our family. Now we have beds, dining table with chairs etc… and many more that was needed in our home as we were having a hard time settling in from out of state. I couldn’t hold back my tears for a lot of worries, stress has been lifted off and I’m very, very grateful to you all.”
“I really appreciate the furniture. It is people like you, the organizations that donate, the people that donate that make life better for the less fortunate. Words cannot express how I feel, from being able to have not only a roof over my head and my sons, but also having furniture! Now my house feels more like a home.”
“I am so thankful for everything. When you have nothing and someone offers you everything, that is priceless. I hope that one day I can help someone in the situation I am in now. God bless you and thank you. My experience was great.”
“Thank you all so much for allowing me and my daughter the best gift on earth which is a new start. This place rocks.”
Drop by Hope Furnishings from 10:00 a.m to 4:00 p.m., Monday to Friday, and 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Saturday. Interested in finding ways to help support the Northwest Furniture Bank? Volunteers can download an application or fill one out online.
Northwest Furniture Bank
117 Puyallup Ave, Tacoma, WA 98421