Imagine you are a mother with two children, struggling to make ends meet. You finally are able to get an apartment, but you have not even a chair to sit on, or the warm glow of a lamp for evening light.

As the founder of Community Warehouse, Roz Bebener heard this story countless times. In fact, as a public school teacher in a low-income area, she encountered many families in just this situation.

“I always believed that a family should be able to eat together at a kitchen table,” she says, “and that families should focus on fixed costs, like food, rent and healthcare, and not have to worry about having a bed to sleep on, and chairs to sit at.”

In the late 1980s, Bebener was part of the social action committee at Nevah Shalom when Jewish Family and Child Services came to the committee asking for help in supporting refugees from the Soviet Union. At the time, families were arriving every two weeks, usually mothers and fathers, two children and grandparents. Help was needed to find apartments, furniture and volunteers to befriend them.

Thinking of her own grandfather, who fled Russia at the age of 16, Bebener agreed to organize donations of household furnishings for these incoming refugees. At the time, she had just resigned from teaching and was expecting her third child.

With diminished federal funds, Jewish Family Services stepped in and helped with food stamps, clothing, English lessons, finding jobs and purchasing basic food items. Soon, Catholic Charities, Lutheran Family Services and Ecumenical Ministries joined in the effort, and they all shared space in donated warehouse space.

Community Warehouse was officially organized in 1990, operating out of both Portland and Tigard as a nonprofit furniture bank that collects and redistributes household goods and furniture to neighbors in need. It works with 200 nonprofit agencies to make a house a home for the most marginalized members of society.

At first, Community Warehouse was serving just 15 to 20 families. Last year, it helped 7,202 people, which includes 2,805 families and 3,396 children. Most of the recipients are refugees, the elderly, those with mental health issues, migrant families and veterans.

Bebener says they come to the warehouse, assisted by a caseworker who will aid in making good decisions about what is needed. It’s not about liking the style or color of a sofa, but basic subsistence.

“The big change since we began operation is that people who got help used to live close by our warehouse,” she says. “Families used to be 10 to 12 people. Now, we take care of people as far away as Salem, Estacada and Vancouver.”

Bebener was ordering coffee recently when the cashier told her how grateful she was to Community Warehouse for helping her. She had come to the city as a homeless teen and found help through New Avenues for Youth, which then connected her to Community Warehouse.

“People in an apartment need something to feel that this space is theirs,” says Bebener, who stepped down as president and now just sits on the board. “They are more likely to come home at night and not be found confused at the doorstep of a hospital because they don’t know where else to go. Desperate people visit hospitals 200 times a year.”

She recalls the story of a veteran who waited outside Community Warehouse for three weeks because his only possession in his apartment was a blanket.

She tells another story of a mother with three children who came to the warehouse, waiting for her caseworker to assist in picking out furniture. When the caseworker was delayed, the volunteer staff not only helped the mother select some items, but picked them up and carried them to her home around the corner.

Bebener says there are countless stories of people moved to tears when a truck loaded with furniture arrives at their home that previously had very little.

Community Warehouse’s latest campaign, “Community Collects,” draws on the networking power of local businesses, schools, community groups and churches. They are asked to place a collection bucket in their offices for donations of incidental household items that are easy to carry. It’s a chance to unload those extras you don’t need – to those who do need it.

The most pressing needs are dressers, mattresses and box springs (no king size), lamps, pots and pans. But also needed are kitchen and bath towels, dust cloths, kitchen drawer liners, cooking utensils, pot holders and wash rags.

At first, Community Warehouse was serving just 15 to 20 families. Last year, it helped 7,202 people, which includes 2,805 families and 3,396 children. Most of the recipients are refugees, the elderly, those with mental health issues, migrant families and veterans.

“People have stuff they’re going to get rid of anyway, and other people need it,” Bebener says. “This way they can bring smaller items to work and we do the pick up.”

She adds that if dishes have nicks, or other items are stained, they do not give them to people because they want everyone to feel worthy and respected.

“The people we help really need what we give them,” Bebener says. “A good half of the recipients will probably never hold down a job, but helping them feel good about themselves is doing what’s right. Sometimes we don’t have enough to give.”

Community Warehouse will provide collection bins to any interested organization. Call 503-235-8785, or send an email to rena@communitywarehouse.org, for more information.

There are approximately 23 employees and 80 volunteers at the two sites. Volunteers participate in all functions of the warehouse, including staffing the estate store.

And Bebener builds on the tradition set by her parents. Her mother Madeline contributes $20 a month to a local food bank. And her father, Roscoe Nelson, held in his name the properties of those sent to Japanese internment camps during World War II, so he could give them back when they returned home.

“If a child is introduced to the idea of giving back and being helpful toward others before they are 12, they are more likely to do more when they are adults,” she says.

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