A Des Moines furniture bank needs volunteers to continue helping families start over

The FreeStore Warehouse, 834 10th St, Des Moines — Courtney Guein/Little Village

Coming out of COVID, more families than ever are looking to start over and get the assistance they need to thrive.

The FreeStore is a Des Moines furniture bank helping locals leaving domestic violence housing (temporary or intermediate) and other unsafe conditions. They provide furniture and other household items to help furnish a new residence for them to call home.

Recently, there has been an increase in families needing assistance, meaning there needs to be an increase in volunteers and an increase in donations.

“Our numbers have been way up! I think we helped 40 victims last month,” said Diane Munns. Munns is a volunteer at the FreeStore and wears many hats within the organization. She began as a furniture donor and slowly became more involved, now serving as the chair of the board.

Isolation and financial strain caused by the pandemic led to a spike in domestic violence, which left many homeless, stuck with abusive partners or in other bad situations. But Munn said they’re starting to see more and more individuals looking to buy a new home and start fresh — which is where FreeStore comes in.

“We are really looking forward to getting back to normal, whatever that is.”

How it works

FreeStore volunteers collect household items such as furniture, dishes, appliances, linen and more, and purchase items in bulk whenever possible. Donated and purchased goods are stored in the warehouse.

Iowa DV and other Des Moines human services agencies, schools or churches may refer domestic abuse survivors to the FreeStore. When a family or person moves into permanent housing, the FreeStore allows them to walk the warehouse and get all of the items they need to furnish a home for free.

Microwaves and vacuums bought through donations, and stored in the FreeStore Warehouse. — Courtney Guein/Little Village

“We had a person come in donating maybe three months ago,” said Bob Colbertson, a warehouse volunteer. “She said, ‘I’ve inherited something. I would like to donate $10,000.’ She gave us a check but said, ‘I’d like it to go for clients.’ We bought 200 microwaves at like $33 a piece; they were on sale.” They also bought laundry baskets, cleaning supplies, dressers and more with the donated funds.

“I will say people are generous,” Colbertson added. “We get some really nice things.”

How it all started

The organization started as an extension of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in 2001, focused on community outreach. In that first year, seven families were helped.

Now, the furniture bank serves over 250 families a year, equivalent to about 200 tons of furniture.

Twenty years later, in 2021, the FreeStore assisted 317 families, including 405 children and 101 families affected by domestic violence. Roughly 451,000 pounds of furniture and household goods were provided, with a value of $519,840.

The organization became an independent 501(c)(3) charitable entity in 2005. They moved into a space provided by Principal until expanding into their warehouse.

Last year, the organization also expanded to focus on sex trafficking victims through Dorothy’s House in Des Moines and Youth and Shelter Services in Ames.

Their mission statement has also changed to better reflect the range of people they serve:

We support children and families who have escaped domestic violence situations and those suffering from some other form of trauma including natural disaster and criminal assault.  We provide donated furniture and household goods as these families begin new, independent, productive lives in safe environments.

FreeStore works with numerous organizations — including food pantries and counseling services — to help families get back on their feet.

“I would say we got some good supporters,” Munns said. “Chrysalis Foundation has just been wonderful in providing us operating funds.”

“There are so many nonprofits like ours that really pick up the slack and address needs. We don’t do the whole thing, but we are certainly a function that’s needed out there … That’s what makes a community go ‘round!”

FreeStore volunteers work in the warehouse in March 2022. — Courtney Guein/Little Village

Keeping up with costs

One thing’s for sure when it comes to a furniture bank: it needs a lot of space.

“I would say one of the hard things is our biggest expense is warehouse rent and running our trucks,” Munns said.

Rent for the warehouse increased this year, but FreeStore treasurer Larry Anderson was able to get them a long-term lease.

Expenses were around $69,000 last year including warehouse rent, truck maintenance and cost of items.

“And it is so hard to find money for operations,” Munns said. “You know, people say, ‘I want a project, give me a project, let me fund a project.’ But those are our biggest expenses. And that is another one of the challenges that we have. [But] once people know about our mission, [they] are extremely supportive. We’ve gotten support from a lot of different places.”

Over 95 percent of donations are going directly towards helping clients, she said, and items don’t remain in the warehouse for long.

“I think one of the things that people really like about our organization as far as fundraising [is] they know where their dollar goes.”

When they’re able, the FreeStore does organize projects. One successful one was called Dressers for Kids, which saw work places, church groups and other volunteers split into two-person teams to construct chests of drawers.

“We would buy dresser kits,” Munns explained. “You can get them from places like, I think IKEA is a great example. Then we would have a day where — I think it was Principal who did it and others too would come and bring their employees and they would put together the dressers so we didn’t have the labor involved.” 

Another project called Fill the Mayflower saw FreeStore join forces with Mayflower Movers. “They partnered with us to fill their trucks and take donations,” Munn said.

In addition to cash donations and volunteers, the organization is in need of compact household items that can fit in apartments or small homes.

“Smaller sofas, and chairs, smaller tables,” Munns listed. “We don’t need great big dining room tables. We always need dressers. Always, always needs dressers – we have a hard time finding dressers.”

The organization also fixes items that can be repaired or refurbished.

If you would like to help, more information can be found on the FreeStore website.

“We need three things from the community,” Munns said. “We need them to continue to support us financially, we need gently used household goods, and the third thing that we need is volunteers.”

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