Carolyn Rebuffel has an eye for spotting the potential in an old or worn piece of furniture. Often, a little sanding, paint or varnish will fix it, she says.
The interior designer, whose career spans twenty years and includes working as an antiques dealer, is the founder of Make It Home, a local nonprofit that helps furnish the homes of low-income families.
Rebuffel was inspired to launch her nonprofit while working with foster children, as a volunteer.
When children age out of foster care, Rebuffel learned, they are offered little resources to aid their transition into independent living. According to the National Foster Youth Institute, an average of 1 out of every 4 youth in foster care will become homeless within 4 years of aging out of foster care. For former foster children who do manage to get accommodation as young adults, a major hurdle in the process of setting up a home is “furniture poverty” or lacking the means to buy furniture and basic essential items.
“The state gives (aged-out foster youth) almost nothing and furnishings is not one of those things,” says Rebuffel.
Meanwhile, Rebuffel had become increasingly frustrated by the amount of waste she saw in the interior design world: frequent redesigns meant gently used furniture got discarded, while damaged shipments were tossed by manufacturers. She thought these furnishings could be put to better use.
As part of Make it Home, Rebuffel operates a “furniture bank” — a studio in San Rafael where discarded furniture can find a new home.
“You can’t study without a desk, relax without a sofa, or get a good night’s sleep without a bed,” she says. “As soon as you get that piece, (it) makes it easier to live.”
Make It Home volunteers accept and organize furniture they receive from donors. The team only accepts quality pieces, some of which might require minor touch-ups. As the organization identifies families in need — mostly in Marin and Sonoma counties — they assemble furniture collections, tailored to the family’s needs and coordinated with an eye for design. Rebuffel then uses her design expertise to make final styling choices.
Rebuffel’s work is buoyed by her connections in the design world. She works with professional stagers, and sometimes a local furniture retailer will fill a truck with beautiful pieces they were unable to sell and donate these to the nonprofit.
“We’re not just giving people furniture, we’re giving them pride of place.” says Rebuffel.
Rebuffel is currently working on a project she finds particularly meaningful: furnishing the space for Our Village Closet. The nonprofit, located in Guerneville, provides essential items — from clothing to furniture to items on holiday wish lists — to foster youths and their caregivers. Make It Home will furnish the organization’s office and meeting space, “retail” area and Teen Lounge.
Make It Home also works with Welcoming Home, an organization in San Rafael which provides furnishings and essential items to families who are transitioning out of homelessness in Marin and Sonoma counties. Referrals to the organization are received through social workers or organizations like Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa.
On “Welcoming Days,” founder Marsha Roberts and volunteers arrive at vacated homes with a moving truck full of goods. Volunteers place and style furniture, make beds with new sheets, and fill kitchen drawers with pots, pans and utensils. Hours later, when residents return to their newly transformed homes, there’s “a big reveal.”
“We jokingly call ourselves HGTV Lite,” says Roberts.
Many of the donations to Welcoming Home are sourced locally on Nextdoor. “Our first objective is neighbors helping neighbors,” says Roberts, who fills in any gaps with donations from the organization’s website and with furniture pieces from Make It Home.
Roberts says that some might think that homeless people should be happy with whatever furniture they can get. She rejects this notion. “We think it makes a big difference to have a nice and comfortable home. There’s a surplus of nice furniture (in the area).”
Rebuffel lives by the same sentiment, and it inspires and informs the way she manages Make It Home. “We want pretty, sparkly things. We want to line the nest with ribbons. It feels better,” she says.
For more information on how to donate or volunteer:
Make It Home, San Francisco (showroom), San Rafael (storage warehouse), 415-578-3205, makeithomebayarea.org
Welcoming Home, Box 1500015, San Rafael, 415-482-8888, welcominghome.org
Our Village Closet, 16780 Armstrong Woods Rd., Guerneville, 707-867-5083, ourvillagecloset.org