Iowa residents in need following ‘land hurricane’
Susan Johnston called the storm that hit Cedar Rapids, Iowa,…
Susan Johnston tells the story of Central Furniture Rescue with passion and a catch in her voice.
Johnston is the founder, president and executive director of the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, nonprofit. It began almost 30 years ago as an annual clothing giveaway ministry of the Central Church of Christ.
In the two years since Johnston re-envisioned its potential, CFR has grown to become a 501(c)3 nonprofit that so far this year has served about 250 households, providing beds, bedding, basic kitchen items and furniture.
She retired in 2016 from a career in project management, most recently with Trapeze, a Cedar Rapids-based company that provides transit management software for public transportation enterprises.
She told a friend when she retired, “I’m going to see what God wants me to do.”
A woman named Dereisha helped her figure that out.
“She has no idea this is all her fault,” Johnston said of the mother of two little girls, whom she met at a clothing giveaway in early November 2018. “We were talking, and I said, ‘Is there something we can be praying for?’”
Dereisha had come out of a domestic violence situation. She had just started a job at a discount store and moved into an apartment but had no furniture.
“We had everything but what she needed,” Johnston recalled.
“I asked her, ‘Do you mind if we pray about this right now?’ She looked at me like I was a little crazy, but I told her, ‘This is a church. It’s what we do.’”
Johnston prayed for her right there, got her contact information and said, “I have no idea what God will do with what we just asked for, but he’ll do something.”
Within two weeks, Johnston had located beds and other furniture for the family. By Thanksgiving, with help from other Christians at the Central congregation, they had furnished the entire apartment, put up a Christmas tree with gifts and provided a Thanksgiving dinner.
“So now God won’t let me let this go,” Johnston said.
Putting those project management skills to work, she contacted several area nonprofits working with people experiencing homelessness or victims of domestic violence. Each time, she told them about her conversation with Dereisha and asked, “Is this a thing?” Each one assured her it was.
From January through May 2019, she ran a pilot program and outfitted 27 families. By August, Johnston knew the need was greater than one small church could meet, so she incorporated as a nonprofit, expecting the 81-page application to take six months to receive IRS approval. It was approved in a week.
Today CFR collaborates with about 20 other nonprofits, primarily those serving the homeless or victims of domestic violence throughout Linn County, where Cedar Rapids is the largest city.
A commercial real estate agent helped CFR find a warehouse at below the going rate and promised to make sure it would always have space. A year later it had moved twice when someone came along who would pay full price for the space. Johnston said they need a permanent location, and having a constant stream of income would help with that. In the meantime, CRST, an international trucking company based in Cedar Rapids, has provided a trailer to help with moves.
“We know how to move stuff,” Johnston said. “That’s what we do.”
Johnston is a full-time staff member at CFR. Marlene Miller, donations coordinator, is a half-time helper who also attends the Central congregation, which was founded by Miller’s parents and grandparents more than 85 years ago. Like the other 50 or so regulars who pick up, sort, repair and deliver, Johnston and Miller are both volunteers.
After retiring from Management Recruiters, Miller was recruited herself by her daughter, who had been involved with CFR in its very early stages by providing one of those garages where furniture was stored. “She realized this is something I’d have a passion for, which I do,” Miller said.
A core group works in the warehouse receiving donations that have been arranged by Miller, who works from home, scheduling deliveries on 15-minute intervals for all day Friday and Saturday mornings. Warehouse workers do a quick sort and inspection to determine if something needs to be cleaned or fixed. Another group takes items home to repair.
Often donations come from families who are clearing the home of a loved one and are grateful to have a way to give their belongings to someone who needs them rather than haul them to the dump. Most make a goodwill offering when volunteers arrive to pick up the couch or bed or dining room table. One woman who was clearing out a lot of furniture because her invalid husband’s hospital bed now occupied their living room gave her $100.
“I just could not believe she could be that generous,” Miller said. “Those are the kind of people I’m encountering.”
Six churches comprising six denominations provide volunteers. The Central congregation, with a Sunday attendance of 150 to 200, is the only Church of Christ in Cedar Rapids.
“One of the churches is LDS, and they have missionaries in the area that are all 18 to 22 years old, and they come every Wednesday and Thursday and help with deliveries,” Johnston said. “They’re all young and strong — we couldn’t do it without them.”
“It makes me happy to be there for others.”
Tim Wilker began volunteering in fall 2019 because he needed 20 hours of community service after being released from prison. After completing the required hours, he kept coming back three times a week.
Wilker said he figured it’s a good way to spend his time while he’s working to change his lifestyle.
“It’s good motivation to get out of bed every day. I have God in my life now,” said the ex-offender. “He’s closer than ever. Actually, he’s been there all along. It makes me happy to be there for others.”
Wilker got a full-time job at a box company in town. When he learned that Johnston was paying $1.92 each for boxes, he went to the manager and asked if they could help.
“So now we get free boxes, better than the ones I was buying,” Johnston said. “God is in the details of all of this. Each day brings a new challenge, and each day, God says, ‘I’ve got this, Susan.’”
“God is in the details of all of this. Each day brings a new challenge, and each day, God says, ‘I’ve got this, Susan.’”
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, volunteers would deliver the furniture, set up the beds, make them up, arrange and unpack everything so recipients were completely set up, many for the first time in years. Since COVID-19, volunteers just leave things on the porch or inside the door.
Because of COVID-19, Johnston and her staff were preparing for another storm, well before an Aug. 10 derecho hit, destroying homes and knocking out power to thousands of residents — an eviction storm. Her colleagues at Willis Dady Homeless Services and Waypoint Services that serve Cedar Rapids’ homeless have told her that 60 percent of Linn County residents are two to three paychecks from eviction, because of a low-income housing shortage.
Using Dereisha as her example, Johnston explains the math:
She got a job earning minimum wage, about $10 an hour in Iowa, and works 30 hours a week, Johnston said. “She gets $300 a week before taxes, about $275 a week take-home. Household rent should be one quarter of monthly income — so she needed a place to rent for $275 a month. To rent a room in an older home sharing a bath and kitchen is $379. So, she finds an apartment for her family, and now it’s taking two to three of her paychecks to pay rent.”
Prior to COVID-19, the county had about four evictions filed per day, according to a report by Willis Dady Homeless Services and Linn County. A nationwide eviction moratorium during COVID-19 delayed those.
“Four per day times 100 days, that’s 400 households. Then add those that lost jobs because of COVID,” she explained. A fellow nonprofit manager told her that when the moratorium is lifted, Cedar Rapids could expect about 8 percent of the county population, roughly 27,000 people, would represent about $6 million in back rent.
“And I thought, I need to prepare.” Then the derecho hit.
The mammoth storm that struck central Iowa Aug. 10, with hurricane-force winds, destroyed homes and took out power lines. National support organizations converged to help, but Johnston is keenly aware that those support services and the linemen who have swarmed the city to repair power lines and remove downed trees are all going to leave. People whose belongings were lost in the storm will need furniture. Then there are all those people on the brink of eviction. She’s a project manager. She’s making a plan.
“We’re still going to be here.”
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