Florida Keys Business
Sunday, April 21, 2013
Home improvement
Habitat ReStore provides affordable home goods

Habitat for Humanity.

The organization is synonymous with one simple, but powerful word: Home.

And any mention of the home-building group generally conjures images of lumber-toting volunteers at bustling construction sites.

But in recent years, the charity that enables families to realize the American Dream of home ownership has expanded its efforts. The help provided by Habitat for Humanity doesn't stop at the threshold of a brand new home, built by volunteers - and by the family who will treasure it.

The organization, in a sense, now helps with the interiors of the homes it builds -- and any others in need of furniture, appliances, housewares or decorations.

Habitat for Humanity has opened more than 800 ReStores throughout the country, and in doing so has created a revenue stream for its local programs while providing residents with quality, secondhand home goods to beautify that all-important place - home.

The Habitat ReStore on Big Pine Key - located next to the Big Pine Flea Market, is housed in a sprawling, warehouse-sized building that is filled with an ever-changing inventory of quality, donated items that are sold at truly affordable prices, and the proceeds from the ReStore are funneled directly back into the local organization to fund home construction and improvement projects.

"The revenue made here funds our A Brush with Kindness outreach program," said ReStore Manager Tom Greenwood.

A Brush with Kindness "helps low-income homeowners who struggle to maintain the exterior of their homes, allowing them to reclaim their homes with pride and dignity," said Anna Symington, volunteer coordinator for Habitat for Humanity of the Lower Keys Key West.

The local chapter focuses its Brush with Kindness efforts on senior citizens. And although many of them are no longer able to swing a hammer or climb a ladder (hence their need for assistance), they must participate in their own assistance by rounding up friends and relatives as volunteer workers. They also may provide lunches and beverages for the workforce and help with whatever tasks they are able around the job site, Symington said.

Kindness projects thus far have included exterior painting of an entire house, porch repairs, repairing roof leaks and fences and clearing a yard a debris that had accumulated so badly that Code Enforcement was threatening fines, Symington said.

Volunteers from the Keys, along with groups of snowbirds, college students and military groups have donated thousands of hours to the projects.

The revenue from the Big Pine ReStore pays for building materials, paint, tools, and paid skilled labor when needed.

In a win-win-win cycle, the ReStore donors receive a tax deduction for their donations. Shoppers have affordable access to clean, quality furniture, appliances, dishes, books, shelves, windows, you name it. And Habitat for Humanity receives vital income to continue its community improvements.

The Big Pine ReStore brings in about $300,000 a year, estimated Greenwood, who is the store's only paid full-time employee. The building is owned by Monroe County and is leased to Habitat for Humanity for about $10 a year, Greenwood said, adding that the property is also the Lower Keys' designated disaster response headquarters, where FEMA and other agencies will set up shop after a hurricane or other event.

The shop, which also features a clothing boutique on the second floor, is entirely staffed with volunteers, many of whom are snowbirds who also work at the ReStore in their hometowns.

Kathleen Dixon was volunteering in Big Pine last week, and proudly showed off the book sale display she created on one wall with thousands of donated books lining a row of bookshelves that were also donated.

"The message here is if you see it and you want it, get it, because it won't be here tomorrow," Greenwood said, gesturing to the collections of furniture arranged to look like welcoming living rooms, dining rooms, home offices and kitchens.

"This way people can see what things will look like, and they can even buy a whole room if they want," said Greenwood, who uses his background as a museum curator to ensure the aesthetics of all the displays.

"I've tried to make this a desirable place to both shop - and to donate," he said, adding that donors receive tax deductions that reflect the true value of their donations.

A couch that cost $3,000 new may be sold at the ReStore for $275. Nearly new leather love seats were priced at $175, while the more casual sofas cost about $75.

"Some of the furniture may cost a few hundred dollars, but for people who recognize what it's worth, and what it cost new, it's a fantastic deal," Greenwood said, emphasizing that there is also plenty of lower-priced furniture that is in perfect condition.

The store also features some building materials such as doors, windows and sinks, although those items were more plentiful during the real estate and redevelopment boom a decade ago, when developers and contractors were filling the fledling store with surplus building supplies.

When the ReStore opened in 2004, "this place looked like a glorified, secondhand hardware store," Greenwood said of the ReStore when it opened in 2004.

But things have changed, become more organized and easier to navigate. Artwork for sale hangs on the walls, sofas and recliners are arranged around coffee tables.

On the second floor, Coconuts Closet is open three days a week with men's and women's clothing at shockingly low prices. The "closet" is indistinguishable from a high-end vintage shop, and its coordinator Jerry Kimmell, a volunteer, recently was ranked No. 1 in the country among Habitat ReStores for her merchandising techniques, Greenwood said.

"Condition is everything. We're selective in what we accept as donations," Greenwood said. "Nothing goes on the floor that is soiled or not in perfect condition. And we've developed a good reputation by now, so people don't bring us junk."

And the shoppers are as diverse as the donors.

"We get every demographic of shopper in here. They pull up in everything from beat-up pickup trucks to brand new Mercedes," Greenwood said while helping one mother unload a car filled with bags of clothing.

Elementary school teacher Jennifer Sullivan is both a donor and a recipient of Habitat help. She and her husband, Stephen, own a home in Big Pine's Habitat Landing, the organization's first neighborhood that replaced a derelict trailer park in the aftermath of Hurricane Georges in 1998.

"I ask anyone who comes to visit us to bring anything they can to donate to the ReStore," Sullivan said, overflowing with enthusiasm for the organization that enabled her family to live the American dream.

"It was night and day for us, going from a horrible old trailer to our own home," she said. "Habitat changed our lives and I keep giving back whenever I can."

mmiles@keysnews.com

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