The surprise closure of Niagara Furniture Bank has affected many local charities, but one pair of women are stepping up to help those who help others.
While the Fresh Start Project doesn’t deal with large furniture items such as beds and couches, they’re filling the smaller gaps with pots and pans, linens and more. While not a total replacement, it’s gone a long way to ease the impact of the bank’s closure on agencies like the YWCA and Westview Centre4Women.
The Fresh Start Project originated in Mississauga, where Niagara resident Katrina Matuch discovered it. When she returned to Niagara, she and Jenna Gazzellone decided to start a local chapter, which began in November.
The duo started with a Facebook group, where people can post about items they wish to provide for donation. Then, Gazzellone and Matuch will go pick them up and distribute them to those in need.
“After just learning about the project from Mississauga, we could see the need here,” Matuch said. “So someone moves or someone finds themselves in a shelter, especially in a domestic violence situation, they literally leave with the clothes on their back.”
Additionally, Matuch said a lot of household items that work perfectly fine end up in landfills. “We can take people’s items that they no longer need and repurpose them by giving someone everything they need to kind of fill their cupboards themselves when moving … It’s basically just (helping) folks re-entering society or getting that permanent housing and getting a fresh start, creating a better life for themselves,” she said.
Carmolita Shuttleworth, a housing stability worker with the YWCA of Niagara, said the loss of the furniture bank has been difficult for those looking to transition into more permanent housing. A message on the furniture bank’s website said they had to close temporarily as of May 13 “due to the pandemic, unforeseen circumstances and financial hardship.” They haven’t been heard from since.
Shuttleworth said many of the women she works with have limited funds when they go to move into their new homes. “A lot of them are coming either from off the street or they’re fleeing abuse. They’ve left their homes with nothing,” she said.
Shuttleworth went on to explain the Fresh Start Project is helping to create some sense of home for these women. “When I have clients that are moving out into their own units, I contact Fresh Start Project and they basically collect donations from the community to help the women get set up in their new apartments,” Shuttleworth said. “(They help with) kitchen stuff, bathroom stuff. They’ll help with food, clothes at times, toys for kids. So this can give them a start to, you know, set up a new home without having that financial burden.”
Jane LaVacca, executive director of the Westview Centre4Women in St. Catharines, has also been using the Fresh Start Project to help clients.
A lot of the items at the Centre4Women are donated to them, but LaVacca explained some don’t get donated as often as they are needed. “Sometimes people don’t donate, like, odd things like crib sheets, stuff like that, things that wear out,” she explained. “Things we don’t generally throw away until they’re totally worn out … So I reach out to Fresh Start and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a lady who’s really in trouble. She needs queen-sized bed sheets, all I’ve got is singles and doubles. Do you have any?’ And they’ll put it out to their people … and then a couple of days later, they’ll call me and say, ‘we’re going to drop by with this’.”
So far, Gazzellone said they’ve helped 10 families through the YWCA and women at Westview during holidays. Their goal moving forward is to help two families per month. “The more members we have in our group, the more we do,” she said.
To join the Fresh Start Project, visit facebook.com/groups/tfspniagara.
STORY BEHIND THE STORY — After the surprise closure of the Niagara Furniture Bank, reporter Abby Green wanted to speak with the Fresh Start Project, who are trying to help fill some of that void.