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Making a connection: From humble beginnings, nonprofit furniture bank helps needy make home

Lisle, IL

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Sharing Connections volunteer Pat Flavin (right) helps client Randall Morris load up a van with donated furniture items. The Downers Grove furniture bank provides household items at no charge. snapshots.mysuburbanlife.com/1400683
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Sharing Connections client Randall Morris (left) from Forest Park, is helped by volunteer Pat Flavin while loading up a van with donated furniture. The Downers Grove furniture bank provides household items at no charge. snapshots.mysuburbanlife.com/1400683
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Sharing Connections client Randall Morris (left) and volunteer Pat Flavin discuss how to load up a van with a donated mattress and box spring. The Downers Grove furniture bank provides household items at no charge. snapshots.mysuburbanlife.com/1400683
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After picking out a sofa, Sharing Connections client Randall Morris (right) and volunteer Ken Porrey move it to the loading dock. Volunteer Marge Gardner (center) checks the list of other items needed by Morris. The Downers Grove furniture bank provides household items at no charge. snapshots.mysuburbanlife.com/1400683
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Sharing Connections Volunteer Marge Gardner looks for a pair of pants for a client. The Downers Grove furniture bank provides household items at no charge. snapshots.mysuburbanlife.com/1400683

Twenty-five years ago, cribs started piling up in Leeanne McGrath’s Lisle garage.

They weren’t for her kids, but McGrath was going to make sure all of them went to use.

She began distributing the cribs to individuals and families without a place for their infants to sleep. It was such a basic need, she couldn’t imagine a family going without it.

“I felt if I was helping just one other family it would put some good into the world,” McGrath said.

That is still the drive behind Sharing Connections Furniture Bank today, the nonprofit that has grown out of McGrath’s garage to help thousands of families across the region.

“Our goal is to make sure every child has a bed and every family has a table to eat at,” said Sharing Needs Executive Director Chris Cholewa (pronounced chel-oh-ah).

From its Downers Grove warehouse just off Belmont Road, Sharing Connections collects, repairs and restores furniture and then distributes the items to families at no charge.

It is the only organization of its kind in the region and possibly the state, organizers say.

Sharing Connections coordinates with several hundred case managers and social workers at about 125 agencies in the area. Those agents will refer families and individuals to Sharing Connections, which provides furniture, appliances and other households items.

Up to eight families a day will visit the warehouse, which is set up like a furniture store. One aisle is for linens, another for lamps and decorations. Couches and chairs are found on another. Volunteers clean and repair items as close to new as possible, and usually there are enough donated items on the floor to offer clients some choices.

The idea is to make a visit like going to a typical furniture store — most of all because it means a more positive experience, Cholewa said.

Cases vary, but usually people will walk out with furniture for a bedroom, living room and kitchen.

“It’s essentially a house,” said Ryan Varju, director of programs and operations.

For a family getting back into a house, finding furniture is a critical next step, said Amy Van Polen, resource development director for Bridge Communities, a Glen Ellyn-based nonprofit that helps families transition to permanent housing.

“Many families have lost their possessions through, have it be foreclosures or just repossessed  storage units, things like that,” she said. “So they can sometimes come to us with very little household items.

Often clients are families back in permanent housing after homelessness, but they also include victims of domestic violence, returning veterans or families just having to start over, Varju said.

The average family is a single mother with a couple or a few children, he said.

“It’s critical to set up an actual home,” Van Polen said. “To really create a place that feels safe, a place that you want your family to gather.”

For almost 15 years, McGrath continued to run Sharing Connections out of her garage. It moved into its warehouse in 2000.

Last year, the group served about 5,700 individuals, a 16-percent increase over 2010. And there is still room to grow.

Sharing Needs typically serves up to 80 families in a month, but that is short of the demand. They’ll hear requests from 120 families or more, Varju said. The problem is not time or even lack of donation offers; rather, it’s getting the donations into the warehouse.

People will offer furniture, but it could be some time before volunteers make it over to pick it up. “Typically, people want to get rid of it in the next couple days,” Cholewa said.

There are only several full-time staff members, but they have a roster of 274 volunteers — and growing as Sharing Connections starts to attract students collecting service hours.

Cholewa is also hoping to recruit outreach volunteers to go out to the community to spread word about Sharing Connections.

And there is always an emphasis on the program’s roots.

“It means a lot to us to continue with cribs,” she said.

Through her career at various nonprofits, Cholewa had heard of McGrath — still involved with Sharing Connections as a member of the board — and she was described in glowing, larger than life terms, Cholewa said.

When she began at Sharing Connections, Cholewa was amazed to find it all true.

“She doesn’t expect anything,” she said. “She just does this.”

MORE INFO WHAT Sharing Connections Furniture Bank WHEN Pickup 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday; Drop-off 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday; 9 a.m. to noon Saturday where 5111 S. Chase Ave., Downers Grove INFO (630) 971-0565, www.sharingconnections.org

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