Dressers, couches, and dinner tables. Just imagine the holidays without them. No dresser means nowhere to store winter clothes. No couch means nowhere to cuddle up with loved ones. No dinner table means nowhere to congregate as a family, nowhere to talk about the day, nowhere to enjoy a cozy, home-cooked meal together. These three pieces of furniture are so much more than creature comforts; they are foundational pieces to the puzzle of living a stable, dignified life.
And they are available for free, for everyone who needs them, at Long Island’s only furniture bank, Open Door Exchange.
An outreach mission of the Setauket Presbyterian Church, Open Door Exchange was founded in 2015 by pastor Kate Jones-Calone. She had then-recently returned from a trip to a Maryland-based furniture bank, where she witnessed firsthand the impact such an organization could have on its local community, and knew Long Island needed one of its own.
That first year, Open Door Exchange (ODE) served 65 families out of a storage unit. Seven years later, the organization is projected to serve more than 350 families, out of their Port Jefferson Station warehouse, in 2022 alone.
“We’re still the only furniture bank on Long Island—the only official place where it’s guaranteed that people can come and get the furniture they need,” says Ashley McFaul-Erwin, ODE’s community outreach pastor. “Just like a food bank, we act as the middle person between our donors and our clients. What we offer is just a lot bigger and heavier.”
And a lot more logistically challenging. To stock their warehouse, ODE picks up furniture donations locally, in the Setauket and Port Jefferson area, twice a month, whereas donations from further afield must be dropped off by donors.
“And we’re pretty strict about what we accept,” says McFaul-Erwin. “If I’m not putting it in my house, I’m not putting it in the warehouse.”
As a result, ODE’s warehouse more closely resembles a well-curated, second-hand furniture shop than the dusty, dismal image the phrase ‘furniture bank’ may inspire. This is, of course, by design—and thanks to ODE’s insistence, on every level, of treating its clients with respect.
“It’s just really important to us to maintain our clients’ dignity, and allow them to feel as if they are being treated as human,” says Eva Stanganelli, ODE’s outreach operations manager. “In so many social service settings, people are made to jump through hoops and prove their need, and it’s very dehumanizing and degrading. So when people arrive at ODE and they hear that they don’t need to show ID, or provide paperwork, it’s just a huge sigh of relief. All we need is for our clients to sit down with us and tell us what they need.”
From there comes a few minutes of minimal paperwork, and then what can only be described as a no-cost furniture shopping spree.
“When a client comes in, they are paired with a volunteer who serves as their ‘personal shopper,’” says McFaul-Erwin. “We always want to make it as much of a shopping experience as possible. One of our volunteers, Alice, would always take clients around and start every tour of the warehouse by saying, literally, ‘Okay, let’s go shopping.’”
ODE’s clients are encouraged to find pieces that they love, pieces that match, pieces that will not only serve a need—a table to eat on, a couch to sit on, a bed to sleep on—but that will bring them joy and make them feel at home.
“We like to say that ODE is for people in transition,” says Stanganelli. “Our services are for them—for people who are moving from a shelter into housing, or for people whose families are getting bigger; for people who lost everything in a house fire, or for people who encountered bed bugs and had to get rid of everything they owned. And a huge part of our work is that, by providing furniture, we are freeing up other financial resources for families. Now that the expense of furniture is taken care of, that money can go to food, housing, or schooling. So in a very tangible way we offer our families not just furniture, but financial stability, as well.”
They also keep so many pieces of otherwise beautiful furniture out of local landfills. And they’re just getting started. The Setauket Presbyterian Church just formed a committee to look for a new and bigger building for ODE, such is the local need for their services.
Readers interested in getting involved with ODE can do so by either donating furniture or funds—some of which ODE uses to buy new mattresses, the only items they do not accept second-hand, for their clients—or by volunteering in their warehouse.
“It is so moving to get to talk to clients and hear how much of an impact this furniture has on their lives,” says Stanganelli. “There is so much our fellow community members go through that we don’t realize is happening, so talking to them and hearing where they come from, where they’re at, and then being able to meet them there, and give them exactly what they need, is so fulfilling.”
That is the joy of helping ODE’s clients ‘go shopping.’ Of hearing their stories and helping them as they begin to write a new chapter. Of meeting them in the thick of their transition and dreaming alongside them of what awaits their family on the other side. Of facilitating a fresh start, of furnishing a new home, of creating a safe, comfortable space for a neighbor in need.
“We unfortunately get a lot of women who come out of domestic violence situations,” says McFaul-Erwin. “Recently one of our clients shared her story with us. She told us that the thought of setting up home again was so daunting that she felt she couldn’t leave the relationship she was in. How was she going to do it all by herself? She started secretly talking to people about the possibility of leaving, and about how she didn’t think she could do it, and that’s when one of those people told her, “There’s this place in Port Jeff Station that could give you free furniture, so please don’t worry about that part.” Now, of course that wasn’t the only thing that empowered her to leave, but it did make her breathe a little easier. And then, a couple of weeks later, she pulled up to our warehouse in a U-Haul and we filled it up with everything she needed to start a new, safe life.”
And that’s just one story. Both McFaul-Erwin and Stanganelli admit there are several hundred more.
“It’s like one of our volunteers said to me once,” says McFaul-Erwin. “She said, ‘Ashley, at least you’ll always have something to preach about—because miracles happen here at ODE every day.”
For more information on Open Door Exchange, please visit their website at opendoorexchange.org. The Open Door Exchange warehouse is located at 200 Wilson Street Building G in Port Jefferson Station, New York.