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Northwest Furniture Bank Turns Houses Into Homes

Leasa Brittenham sits amongst the donated couches at Northwest Furniture Bank. (Photo by Rachel Belle's iPhone)

Tacoma mom Leasa Brittenham didn't think twice about starting the dishwasher before she ran out to do an errand in late April. Who would? People do this all the time.

"I started it at 9:00 a.m. I took my son to school and then me and my boyfriend were taking a rug to my parent's house," Leasa recounts. "We were gone for 28 minutes and when I came back my house was completely filled with smoke. Smoke alarms were going off."

She couldn't do anything but watch her house burn.

"It burned the kitchen, the dining room, the living room - which was half the house. The rest of the house was so heavily smoke damaged that the belongings that we didn't lose to fire, we lost to smoke damage."

Investigators are still trying to figure out why her 2-year-old dishwasher caused a house fire. But in the meantime, Leasa and her three kids are trying to piece their life back together. Luckily, Tacoma's Northwest Furniture Bank was able to help.

"The Northwest Furniture Bank exists to get furniture to people who are coming out of transitional housing, mostly. But also fire victims, flood victims. Anybody who has been in a situation where they have lost everything, had a bad life event," says co-founder and executive director Bill Lemke.

He says furniture is a luxury most of us take for granted.

"There are a lot of people living without furniture. I never thought that the need was as great as it is. But last month, in May, we served 125 families. That's 125 sofas. In a year, we're on projections right now to hit about 1,200 families. That's mostly south King County and Pierce County. We haven't even touched the rest of the state."

Northwest Furniture Bank will fill an entire home.

"We promise beds for everybody in the household, every kid. We spend $60-70,000 every year buying beds. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity. We charge them $50 so that they have a sense of dignity and skin in the game, if you will. They value it a lot more."

I walked through the big Tacoma warehouse with Leasa, as she picked out a dresser, dining room table and chairs, a nightstand, bookshelf and things for the kitchen.

"We only had structural insurance. All of our belongings are gone," said Leasa. "So anything we don't have to purchase is great. I'm on disability, I have MS, and I have flare ups that take this side of my body away sometimes. So, being a single mom of three on that, it's hard."

Bill was working as a wholesale furniture rep when he came up with the idea for the nonprofit in 2005.

"My son kept reminding me, 'You should do this. This is a good thing. Better than doing what you're doing. More meaningful.' I had no intention of doing it. But tragically, that November, he passed away from lymphoma. So my 17-year-old son, who was chattering in my ear all summer, to do something significant, impacted me. For my wife and I it's like, now what are we going to do? Our world just changed dramatically. The furniture bank was one of those things that stuck in my mind, wakes you up at 3:30 in morning. And today we're serving over 100 families a month."

And his son was right, this job is far more fulfilling.

"The biggest statement we get is, 'You helped us turn our house into a home.' I've had people tell us that the kids wouldn't have other little kids in the neighborhood over to the house because their dresser was a cardboard box or a Hefty bag. Their bed was a bunch of blankets on the floor. One mother told me she didn't tell her kids to go to bed because they didn't have a bed. She had to tell them to go to sleep. And she says, 'Now I can tell them to go to bed.'"

The Furniture Bank runs on donations from furniture and mattress companies and from the community. Click here for information on donating furniture, mattresses and housewares that are clean and in excellent condition.

In July, the bank will take mattresses in any condition. They'll recycle the mattresses that are in bad shape and use that money to buy new ones.

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