RALEIGH — When her children went off to college, Jackie Craig thought she would put her eye for design to work sprucing up homes for sale.
As she sought to cut through clutter, though, Craig was surprised at how difficult it was for people to part with what they didn’t need, particularly furniture with sentimental connections – grandma’s old rocking chair, a desk used as a child.
She and her friend, real estate agent Beth Smoot, found it was easier for people to let go if they knew their treasures would be used well.
So the pair set about bringing this surplus to the people who needed it most – women setting up new homes after leaving abusive spouses, homeless people, families who lost their houses to natural disasters.
The result was The Green Chair Project, a nonprofit that provides enough furniture to fill an entire home at a deep discount to people who are starting fresh. The group has furnished almost 600 homes in four years, and in the process it has diverted an estimated 500 tons of furniture from the landfill.
This is a growth year for Green Chair. It has expanded to occupy an entire 30,000-square-foot building and has hired three staff members. And it now works with clients from 58 referring agencies.
Craig, now the group’s director, puts her design skills to use arranging the donated items into an elegant showroom to improve the shopping experience.
“It’s about making a home,” she says. “Homelessness isn’t over when there’s a roof over your head.”
Steve Swayne, CEO of StepUp Ministry, says the group has filled an important gap for people who are fighting to improve their lives.
“Every person I’ve watched go through Green Chair is like a kid in a candy shop,” Swayne says. “Jackie has a deep desire to see underserved people receive the dignity everyone deserves.”
Love of decorating
Craig, 52, grew up in Southern California, but she moved around the country during her teen years to Texas, Colorado, Georgia and Indiana, where she attended Ball State University.
She took an account executive job with John H. Harland Co. right out of college, working there for 13 years until she decided to stay home with her two small children.
By then, the family had moved to Raleigh. Craig’s husband, an economist, took a job at N.C. State University, where he still works.
She was a devoted volunteer during her time off, becoming a parent-teacher association president, organizing charity galas and serving on the board of the Marbles Kids Museum, among other activities.
She started considering a new career when her girls went off to college. Smoot suggested home staging, a flexible job that could be fun for someone who loves decorating as much as Craig.
“I’m the friend you call when you want to redo your bookcases in your house or rearrange your room,” she says.
As she started home staging, Craig regularly battled clutter that made homes less appealing to buyers.
But she met resistance when trying to clear away unnecessary items. And at the same time, she knew there was a need elsewhere for such items.
Craig had volunteered helping women who were released from prison make the transition to independent life, and she knew how far a little help could go.
“I saw over and over again what a fire drill it was as people try to start their lives over,” she say. “What we do is put a name and a face on these donations and put them in the hands of those who need it.”
Green Chair first started working with StepUp, which offers job and life skills training, and InterAct, which serves victims of domestic abuse, and gradually added partners. It recently began a program that provides beds to students in Wake County schools who do not have one.
The group now has three full-time and four part-time employees; Smoot remains on the organization’s board. Hundreds of volunteers from high school students to retirees test appliances, arrange the showroom and more.
A shopping spree
Clients can come only once to Green Chair, where they pay an average of $200 to furnish an entire home, from couches and kitchen tables to dishes and sheets.
They pick out each item themselves, using a point system to reach their quota. A dollhouse near the entrance illustrates how a typical two-person home might be furnished. Single people or large families could spend anywhere from $50 to $500.
Staff and volunteers work with clients, asking their favorite colors and offering decorating tips. A shopping spree usually starts in the kitchen, where volunteers have created matched sets of dishes, cups and napkins displayed in baskets.
It goes on through the entire house – chairs, beds, rugs, lamps and so on. There’s an element of pampering here, as people moving on from bad situations step into the stylishly appointed offices and roam the meticulously decorated showroom.
When the shopping is done, clients choose from shelves of baskets with items such as picture frames, candles and coffee mugs as a parting gift. Each client has the showroom to himself or herself the entire time.
“The whole experience is very personal and very dignified,” she says. “Part of the environment and the process is providing them the pride of ownership, getting to make choices.”
Pace of donations
Craig says the pace of donations is close to miraculous. Green Chair hardly keeps any furniture in storage outside the showroom, but it never runs out. One day last week, she had only six couches – always the item needed most – with four clients scheduled to shop.
The new wing of the building is now housing items for the public sales the group has started to hold four times a year, including vintage furniture, antique china and other items that aren’t desirable or practical for most clients.
Craig says rent is high at the location on Capital Boulevard not far from downtown, even at a discounted rate. But the location also makes things more convenient for clients, donors and volunteers.
An annual gala, grants and donations supplement the money collected from clients to keep the operation running. In all, the organization’s annual budget is close to $500,000.
Craig is involved in nearly every part of the operation, from taking donations to organizing events to personally recruiting volunteers and soliciting donations.
Suzi Bevacqua, the nonprofit’s accounts manager, says she watched Craig once meet someone at a party and leave with a donated printer worth thousands of dollars.
“She lives and breathes this place, and that’s what makes it work,” says Bevacqua.
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