Los Altos resident Ray Piontek’s Bay Area Furniture Bank matches one home’s surplus with another household’s need.
When flooding displaced families in San Jose this spring, he assembled household furniture for six families to warm their temporary apartments, and travel home with them as San Jose rebuilds.
Piontek founded the furniture bank a year and a half ago after learning that many veterans and their families live in unfurnished homes when they first find housing in the area. He collects furniture, bedding and household items for anyone who needs them – by partnering with organizations such as Santa Clara County’s Social Services Agency, Piontek takes referrals for everyone from young veterans to women displaced by domestic violence.
Piontek first moved to the area as a naval officer flying P-3 aircraft out of Moffett Field, moving to various jobs in the high-tech industry. When he retired, he saw his town, and his work ethic, through new eyes. With weekdays spent at work, and weekends in the U.S. Navy reserve, his view of Los Altos had missed a lot, for a long time, Piontek said.
“For so long I was insular, focused on the needs of my job – I didn’t know the needs of my community,” he said. “I am now working as hard – and probably more passionately – than any time before. This is so rewarding.”
Now he mingles widely – with supportive business owners, other nonprofit organizations and social services agencies, homeowners, realtors and the huge variety of people who seek help during crisis.
What started as a one-man show, picking up furniture from friends and family and storing it in his garage, has evolved. With donations from individuals and grants from sources like Los Altos Community Foundation, he is now storing furniture in portables rented on the Foothill College campus.
A local effort
Piontek has no problem getting donations – the real work comes in logistics for storing the furniture, matching it to new families and transporting to and fro.
Members of the community have rallied around Piontek’s project. Los Altos Community Foundation provided crucial early funding. Hengehold Trucks, located at 762 San Antonio Road in Mountain View, has contributed substantially to the effort by donating the use of moving trucks as well as fuel on an ongoing basis.
Hotels have contributed since a first, large donation from the Fairmont San Jose, and include a donation of 191 rooms’ worth of furnishings planned for this July from Los Altos’ Courtyard Marriott. Foothill College stepped up with space, renting two unused modular units to the furniture bank at a good rate. Veterans who attend Foothill College have access to “shop” the furniture donations as they are setting up a household, a service that may extend to other students in need over time.
High-volume donations – major gifts from hotels undergoing refurbishment – provide the best efficiency for the furniture bank, though Piontek still accepts smaller donations of household furniture from homeowners in the Los Altos area. He tries to plan efficient pickups, from multiple neighbors or at least multiple pieces at a time.
He asks for a financial contribution every time he turns up on someone’s doorstep to personally retrieve their donated goods to cover the practical expenses of getting a bedroom set or kitchen gear from the Los Altos area to where it is needed. Fifty dollars can furnish a room for a client, while $250 can provide nearly an entire home’s worth of goods for a family.
“It’s not a sustainable model unless there’s financial donations coming in,” Piontek explained, noting that the operation does all of the driving and storing to acquire, maintain and distribute furniture under its own power.
In addition to families displaced by the flooding in San Jose, recent furniture recipients have included refugees and the foster children transitioning into young adulthood who have to set up an apartment and live alone for the first time. Referring agencies often – but not always – help pay the costs of moving the furniture.
Because of its location in the heart of the community, the furniture bank is able to respond quickly with household essentials when a local agency has a client in need. Piontek partners with groups ranging from Catholic Community Services to the local arm of the International Rescue Committee.
Furniture isn’t hard to come by as homeowners come and go from the Bay Area, or upgrade – but volunteer time and money have become essential to the expanding effort.
Piontek said managing the logistics of an increasingly complex nonprofit organization has made him realize that partners are his most-needed resource. He’s looking for volunteers who can answer the phone, schedule visits and drop-offs or write thank-you notes to donors. He has 200 lamps, 200 lampshades and no one to match them up – and he could use someone who knows how to touch up furniture, too.
With help from members of the Mountain View Day Worker Center, Piontek has been doing all of the lifting and delivering himself – enough exercise to keep the retiree fit – but he could use volunteer loaders and drivers, too.
To volunteer and for more information, visit bayareafurniturebank.org.