Helping with furniture



Helping with furniture
Ottawa Citizen Digital - Ottawa Citizen - 14 Apr 2012 - Helping with furniture
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14 Apr 2012
Ottawa Citizen
Helping with furniture
Nathalie Maione, founder of HWF, donates and delivers to refugees in Ottawa
It’s 8:25 p.m. on a Wednesday. Geraldina and Jagmohan Maini stand in what was the master
bedroom of their home of more than 40 years. They’re surrounded by smiling young volunteers and a
tiny, fast-moving, fast-talking woman in a black ski jacket two sizes too big.
Nathalie Maione pilots the Helping With Furniture cube van on the pickup and collection runs
that take donated furniture to the homes of refugees who have arrived in Ottawa recently.
All of them are looking at a very large TV, one of the last remaining objects on the solid wood
shelving unit lining one wall. Boxes crowd every room of the Beacon Hill bungalow as the Mainis
downsize to a condo in Toronto.
“We can take the TV? And the DVD? Great, OK, let’s get this out of here. Who can take this to the
truck?” says Nathalie Maione, wearer of the black jacket and leader of the volunteers. Maione has one
arm wrapped around the back of the TV, assessing its bulk while talking to the Mainis and giving
directions to her helpers. “This will be great for Family 2 tonight.”
Family 2 is a pair of young brothers recently arrived from Rwanda, who happen to be the second
family Maione and her team will be helping with furniture on this night. That’s the name of her charity,
Helping With Furniture: They pick up furniture from donors and deliver it to newly arrived refugees,
people in the midst of their own transition to a new life. By the end of the night, thanks to Maione and
her army of volunteers, four donors will have off-loaded piles of unwanted stuff, and two empty 4/26/2012
Ottawa Citizen Digital - Ottawa Citizen - 14 Apr 2012 - Helping with furniture
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apartments will be bursting with much-needed furniture.
Maione, 50, started Helping With Furniture in 2005 with her friend, Buffy Cassidy, after seeing the
need while helping a friend. It has grown to become her passion, a second job, albeit one that is
unpaid. Every Wednesday evening, after running a day care in her home since early morning, then
feeding those of her own six children still living at home, Maione leads her helpers on an almost
sevenhour odyssey across the city, picking up, sorting and delivering. Last year, HWF picked up from
277 donors and delivered to 111 families during its once-weekly runs.
This is the story of one such evening.
Maione parks an enormous yellow Penske moving truck in front of Sara Filbee’s elegant Victorian
semi-detached in Lebreton Flats. Use of the 22-cubic-foot behemoth is donated by Penske Truck Rental,
but it doesn’t come with a driver so Maione — barely five feet tall — is usually behind the wheel.
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Ottawa Citizen Digital - Ottawa Citizen - 14 Apr 2012 - Charity: ‘Families are so grateful... Page 1 of 4
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Charity: ‘Families are so grateful …
that makes you feel good’
With her are the first handful of almost 20 volunteers who will help on this night: a mix of high
school students who were once in her day care, strangers who came out once and keep coming back
and refugees she has helped in the past.
Nathalie Maione leaves the newly furnished apartment of Venerende Murakambanza.
Riding shotgun for the evening is Corinne Leduc, a 17-year-old high school student with a ponytail,
a turquoise anorak and a ready smile. Leduc has known Maione since arriving at her day care at the
age of one and has been helping with furniture for several years. She’s an expert at packing moving
trucks efficiently.
“I think I’ve only missed four weeks in the past year,” Leduc says. “It’s fun, the people here are
good people, and it makes you really want to come out. The families are so grateful, and that makes
you feel good, too.”
Filbee, a senior public servant clad in an elegant grey jersey dress, takes Maione down to the
unfinished basement. Like the Mainis, she’s downsizing to a condo. Doubled over to avoid the low
ceiling, Filbee points to the items she’s donating. Within three minutes, the crew — all girls, mostly
teens — are carrying things out the front door: horizontal blinds, two fans, a cube table and a heater.
They chat, giggle and banter as they work, moving briskly as they ferry pieces from Filbee’s
basement. Down below, Maione spies some bookcases.
Ottawa Citizen Digital - Ottawa Citizen - 14 Apr 2012 - Charity: ‘Families are so grateful... Page 2 of 4
“Perfect … those will go straight to tonight’s families,” she says. “I know I don’t have many
bookcases in storage.”
Storage is HWF’S biggest expense. Maione spends about $12,000 a year to maintain five storage
units at a storage park on Canotek Road, and that’s at a reduced rate. Add in the cost of gas and
insurance for the truck, and Maione says it costs about $25,000 to keep HWF running every year.
Most of the money comes from their annual gala, which this year is scheduled for next Friday at St.
Elias Banquet Hall. The rest comes from the HWF booth at the Great Glebe Garage Sale, private
donations and small sponsorships.
Within 25 minutes, Filbee’s furniture is in the back of the truck. Maione smiles, thanks her and hops
up to the cab.
7:04 P.M.
As the truck pulls up outside the Glassworks condo building on Main Street, three volunteers are
standing on the sidewalk. Mark, Jenny and Aaron arrived earlier and carried a blue leather loveseat and
two armchairs downstairs to wait for Maione.
“They’re gorgeous!” Maione says.
“And super light!” Mark says.
Maione has honed the logistical side of the operation to a tight schedule. Settlement agencies refer
the families to her, and she sends one of her team of visitors to assess their needs and draw up a
detailed description of the obstacles to moving: how many flights of stairs, how to gain entrance and so
on. Another team, the bundlers, make weekly trips to the storage units to gather dishes, pots, pans and
linens. They take them home, pack them and return them to the storage unit in time for Wednesday
Every Sunday, Maione looks at the list of donors — prepared by yet another volunteer — and picks
three or four for that week. She then emails volunteer movers to see who is available. On Monday,
Maione calls the donors to confirm, on Tuesday she distributes the schedule and designates different
teams of three or four volunteers to be at the second and third donor locations early, so the furniture is
ready to go when the truck arrives.
Leaving Main Street, Maione asks Leduc to put the address of the next donor in the GPS.
“I know where it is … we don’t even need the GPS,” Leduc says.
“I’ve heard that before,” Maione says.
7:48 P.M.
Members of another team of HWF volunteers are chatting and joking in the twilight, surrounded by
the tables, dressers and shelving they’ve just removed from the basement of an Innes Road apartment
building. Among the junk tenants leave behind, there are often gems.
Maione hands out safety vests to the new arrivals so they will be visible in the dark. Among them is
Mike, a refugee from Haiti who received furniture from HWF a couple of years ago and now volunteers.
He hasn’t been out for a while, so Maione asks about his family and gives the tall young man a hug.
“Did you grow, you big brat, or did I shrink?” she says with a laugh.
Maione quickly inspects furniture in three separate storage areas in the apartment complex and
politely refuses some of them.
“This is wet, see? It already has mould on it,” she shows the building’s groundskeeper. “It’s not
safe. I would just put that in the garbage.”
She says yes to a side table with a scratched top. As one of the volunteers picks it up, they discover
the drawer is filled with the detritus of a life: a bank book, pens, takeout menus. All gets tipped into a
bin and left behind.
When the groundskeeper hears that HWF’S storage units are nearby, he offers to bring donations
over in his truck next time. Maione’s eyes light up. “That would be great.”
At one point a charitable foundation tried to help HWF find warehouse space, but Maione insists on
staying in the east end, where she and most of her volunteers live. That means they can’t accept
furniture from donors living west of downtown; it’s too time consuming to drive the items all the way
back to Canotek Road.
Maione dreams of expanding, maybe having more storage in the west end, with another team of
volunteers who live in that area. She also wonders if she’d be able to run HWF as a part-time job, which
would enable her to cut back on her child care hours. Right now, Maione works on HWF while her day
care kids are napping, then again at night after homework, dinner and laundry.
8:30 P.M.
Geraldina and Jag Maini watch the crew load the Penske with their television, bookshelves, desks
and more. Geraldina, 74, came to Canada very young after her family lost everything in Lithuania
during the Second World War. Jag, 80, grew up in India during Partition and arrived in Saskatchewan as
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a graduate student.
“We don’t have a problem parting with material things,” Jag says. “I Googled to find a charity and
this sounded good. We both know what it’s like to go through upheaval, and to come to Canada as
Maione thrives on meeting donors like the Mainis. By the time they’re done, they’re on hugging
“I meet all these people who are so extraordinary, that I would never have the chance to meet
otherwise,” she says. “It puts the world back in balance.”
However, there’s a problem: the last few items from the Mainis’ house won’t fit in the truck. Maione
pauses for a swig from her water bottle, then starts giving instructions: most of the volunteers will go
to the storage with her to unload, a small crew will stay behind to get the rest of the Mainis’ furniture
up from the basement when the truck returns.
“Guys, we’re running super late!” she calls, to no one in particular.
9:14 P.M.
The gravel lane in front of the HWF storage units looks like a midnight madness sale at a flea
market. All the night’s donations are spread out in the dim, yellow light. There is already a collection
started for each of the two recipient families, including boxes of dishes and garbage bags holding
sheets, blankets and towels.
Volunteers bustle back and forth, lifting, moving, directing, picking items out of the tightly packed
units. One has a clipboard with the list for Family 2. “OK, I need a TV!” she shouts. “Got one right
here!” shouts another.
A flower-print loveseat emerges from storage for Family 1 and is added to the pile. Maoine isn’t
satisfied with the green velvet arm chair they’re going to pair it with – they don’t really match in style
or colour – but, with nothing better available tonight, she gives the OK, then heads back to the Mainis
for the last load.
10:15 P.M.
After loading up for the deliveries, the crew takes a short break for water and granola bars, then
heads out. Maione still has her sunglasses perched on her head as she pulls up to a low-rise apartment
building on Borthwick.
A mother from Burundi and her three teenagers watch silently as a steady stream of furniture
begins to emerge from the van. Venerende Murakambanza and her children arrived last September and
have been living at Reception House, a refugee hotel run by the Catholic Immigration Centre.
“It’s hard to live all together in one room with three teenagers,” Murakambanza says. “Nobody could
concentrate on their studies. There was no privacy.”
They’ve had this east-end apartment for a little more than a week, with only mattresses and four
wooden kitchen chairs. In 20 minutes, the living room is packed with furniture, including a dresser and
some lamps from Filbee’s Victorian semi-detached.
“This is everything I need. … I didn’t know they would do all this,” Muramkambanza says. “I cannot
find the exact words to express how happy I am. This is love.”
10:57 P.M.
Somewhere between Montreal Road and Booth Street, Nathalie tells the story of how she did
deliveries recently in spite of some broken ribs from an accident in her van.
“Some of the volunteers, they have to be so, so sick not to come,” Maione says proudly.
“They arrive and I’m saying to them, ‘What are you doing here?’ But they really want to come.”
11:05 P.M.
Innocent, 25, opens the door to the Dundas Street apartment he shares with his brother, Patrick.
The Rwandan brothers have been in Ottawa just seven weeks. They only have mattresses and a futon
sofa in the kitchen.
The Mainis’ TV is carried into the living room, followed soon after by the leather loveseat and
armchairs from the condo on Main Street and the side table from Innes Road.
“Thank you, thank you very much,” Patrick says quietly to Maione, matching her smile.
“Will you help us sometime?” Nathalie asks. “Of course,” Patrick says. “I’ll call you!” Maione says.
11:28 P.M.
The team members head home in several vehicles. Nathalie fills the truck with gas and returns it to
the Penske depot off Walkley Road before heading head home in her van. She gets to bed around 1
a.m. The first child arrives at her day care at 7 a.m. Not surprisingly, his mother is another volunteer
who helps with furniture.
“I just love it, I love the people, I love my volunteers,” Maione says. “As long as there’s a need, I
don’t think I could live with myself. When we go on holidays for three weeks, we close HWF and I find it
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very difficult, knowing I’m going on holidays and there are families, waiting.”
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