Wandering the aisles of the vast Chicago Furniture Bank showroom, 28-year-old single mother Trayhanda Starling is free to pick out any bed, sofa, love seat, arm chair, dresser, desk, occasional table, kitchen table, dining table, chair, lamp, mirror, rug, artwork, small appliance and box of kitchen supplies that she desires for her new apartment in Des Plaines.
"That's a nice table," Starling says as she eyes a black kitchen table that comes with two substantial chairs.
"You get a roll of tape and a Sharpie. Write your name on the tape and stick it on any piece you want," explains James McPhail, who, with Griffin Amdur and Andrew Witherspoon, started this charity as a senior project at the University of Pennsylvania. Their business plan won a 2018 President's Engagement Prize from the university and a $100,000 grant to launch their dream last summer on Chicago's West Side.
Amdur, Witherspoon and McPhail, all 23 years old and sharing an apartment in Wicker Park, explain their business as if they are part of a relay team. One starts the story but quickly gets called away to deal with a business issue. A partner picks up the story for a moment, before he departs for the giant freight elevator that brings furniture down to the loading dock. The three of them never seem to be in the same place at the same time. They take part in everything from financial planning to carrying a couch up narrow stairs. They work with a host of charities to find people who really could use the furniture.
"I've had experiences with people crying and giving you hugs," McPhail says.
"Some are victims of domestic violence," Amdur says.
"By and large, our clients are just down on their luck," Witherspoon says.
Starling, who gave birth to her son 12 years ago when she was high school student, also has a 4-year-old daughter and a full-time job with a real estate company. But she missed four months of work when doctors found an ovarian cyst.
"I got behind on my rent," Starling explains. She's healthy again and back to work, but her landlord in Evanston filed eviction papers. That's when Open Communities, a not-for-profit fair-housing advocate group that serves suburbs in Cook, DuPage and Lake counties, came to her aid.
"Sometimes people's stuff gets thrown out on the sidewalk and destroyed," says attorney Chris Riehlmann, the fair housing director for Open Communities. They prevented that from happening to Starling, who moved her bed, the kids' bunk bed, a couch and other things, but still needed some items.
Riehlmann had heard about the Chicago Furniture Bank and connected Starling with the organization.
Furniture is donated by individuals, hotels and businesses. Clients, or their charity backers, are asked to pay a $50 fee that covers all the items they need.
Itasca-based Walter E. Smithe Furniture and Design is partnering with Chicago Furniture Bank to donate gently used furniture to the showroom as a way to help people "get back on their feet," says Walter E. Smith III, grandson of the furniture empire's founder. "It's hard to feel you're back on your feet if there's no place to sit to eat breakfast."
With 10 locations throughout the city and suburbs, Walter E. Smithe will be able to donate lots of high-quality items and keep usable pieces from ending up in landfills, Smithe says.
"Their hearts are in the right place, but they're smart businessmen, too," Smithe says of the trio running Chicago Furniture Bank, who now are fundraising on GoFundMe for a third truck to expand their operation.
"They're doing a really nice job, and we're proud to be a part of it," Smithe said.
Back at the showroom, high-end pieces, such as a red leather sectional couch, are marked with a yellow sticker, and clients are allowed only one of those. Starling bypasses the high-end items and says she'll take only what she needs so as not to deprive other clients.
She departs with her goodies in the back of a moving van and a smile on her face. But she does see one downside.
"My kids," Starling says with a smile, "won't be too happy about the homework desk."