Why is a Goods Bank Needed?
The Lowell/Lawrence area communities have some of the highest poverty rates in the State, along with a large and varied immigrant population. (U. S. Census Bureau 2010.) According to the National Low Income Coalition Out of Reach 2013, Massachusetts ranks sixth as the most expensive state for renters, putting the minimum wage at $24.05/hr in order to afford a two bedroom apartment in Massachusetts. Consequently, at the minimum hourly rate of $8.00/hr, a family would need to work at least 3 jobs just to afford its rent.
Supporting a family is a daunting task under these conditions, and even more so if recovering from a life-altering event such as a fire, flight from domestic violence or care for an ailing child.
In any given week, there are 100-200 people, including infants and children, sleeping on the floor in largely unfurnished apartments. The Wish Project becomes the critical source of the local free-furniture-and-goods bank serving this large disadvantaged area. Without The Wish Project, a client’s only options are renting furniture or saving to buy. Since household furnishings for a family of 4 would cost, on average, $1,000 at a thrift store, and rental costs are a monthly drain, too often clients either do without or, if they attempt to furnish their home, find they are unable to manage the expense and are therefore vulnerable to becoming homeless again.
We serve the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts including Greater Lowell and Greater Lawrence. We have a 15,000 sq ft warehouse off Plain St. in Lowell with easy access to the highway 495.
Our mission is to provide our local people in need with basic furniture, home goods and baby goods, while helping the planet by recycling used goods. Only when people have their basic needs met can they move forward and out of the social services system. By providing basic goods to people in crisis, we help end needless suffering in the short term while helping to end homelessness in the long term.
Once the basic needs are met, individuals and families can begin to work towards improving their lives and gaining independence from government subsidies. Our aim is to help the disadvantaged move toward re-establishing home life once housing has been secured. In doing this, our donors recycle their no-longer-needed furnishings, clothing and home goods back into use to people who desperately need them.
We interact directly with state and local shelters and housing programs to effectuate a smooth transition for those moving from shelter or emergency situations into apartments. This provides a unique and cost-effective approach to a problem whose urgency is repeated daily in the individual circumstances of each client.
In 2000 the founder Donna Hunnewell left work as a corporate trainer for FLIR Systems to marry and raise a family. Her free time was then spent volunteering with many social service agencies and she became inspired by how often the agency workers themselves went out of their way to supply goods and find furniture for needy clients.
Thus, Donna’s crusade began. In the early years Donna began her campaign via phone calls and email, recruiting donations from friends, which she then personally delivered to the social agencies in her minivan. But in her heart, she knew a larger solution was needed. After a short volunteer stint at a local food bank, she had an inspiration. Food Banks solved the regional hunger issue but there seemed to be no local solution for families moving out of shelters to receive the furniture, home goods, baby goods and clothing to get back on their feet. Thus the idea of The Wish Project was born.
Using a similar model of a Food Bank for goods, Donna reached out to the community for donations. In 2005, a board of directors was assembled, a 501c3 private non-profit tax exempt status was obtained, a small warehouse space was rented and The Wish Project began its mission. It soon became obvious that furniture needs were the top priority and that required a larger space. In 2006 The Wish Project moved into a section of a large warehouse and in 2007 finally raised the money to relocate into the present 15,000 sq ft warehouse space on Foundry St. in Lowell.
The Wish Project services clients throughout the Merrimack Valley with the majority of families residing in the Greater Lowell area. Most of our clients have suffered a one-time life-altering event such as fire, flood, spousal assault, family illness or financial reversal. More than 85% are women and children and nearly one-third of them were displaced due to domestic violence. We provide aid to many clients from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and beyond. We help the elderly, mentally and physically ill, thousands of babies, homeless families and single individuals. All we require is that they are partnered with a social agency so together they can work to determine the goods and services they need. Our homegrown online referral system, created by a volunteer, dramatically reduces the paperwork and wait time between social agency referral and The Wish Project assistance. Once the request for help, or the “Wish”, is submitted online by the caseworker and receives approval by a Wish staff member, an email packet is sent with all the documentation needed to have that client’s “wish come true”. All that is left is a trip to the warehouse to pick up the goods.
The Wish Project brought on paid staff in 2007 and now currently employs 9 part time staff and 1 full time employee, including a bookkeeper. Payroll makes up about 50% of our budget. Each year an audit is conducted by an independent outside accounting firm. Our 12 member board meets monthly and holds a strategic planning session in January. It is our 1,200 volunteers who log more than 10,000 volunteer hours a year that are the secret to our success.
Since its inception, The Wish Project has moved from 70% grant funded to 97% privately funded. The three largest sources of revenue are private donations, agency fees and active fundraising. In 2011 a Zero Waste Initiative was implemented that opened new revenue streams through recycled electronics, clothing, paper, and other goods unneeded for client use.
In the short term, The Wish Project is seeking more space to better service our clients and our donors. Our long term dream is to own our own building and we are actively pursuing this dream. The ultimate goal is to have a Goods Bank in every major city but, for now, ending homelessness one family at a time here in Merrimack Valley keeps The Wish Project busy.