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Furnished with love: Expanding ministry provides free furniture for Oklahoma tornado victims

The Furniture Bank of Oklahoma City, a ministry of First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City and several metro area partners, is providing free furnishings to families who lost their homes in the May tornadoes and floods in Oklahoma.
by Carla Hinton Modified: July 13, 2013 at 10:00 pm •  Published: July 13, 2013

— A couch replaces lawn chairs, and a house is transformed into a home.

What started as a relatively small storefront ministry has grown into something more extensive to provide home furnishings for families who lost everything in the May tornadoes.

The Furniture Bank of Oklahoma City, a ministry of First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City, Catholic Charities and Skyline Urban Ministries, provided gently used furniture to about 100 families in the first month after the storms, said the Rev. Tom Ogburn, of First Baptist-Oklahoma City.

But a donation of more than 5,500 new armoires, beds and tables from a major American furniture brand has given the ministry new legs.

The preacher said two warehouses full of furniture — much of it Thomasville brand — now await families trying to make a fresh start after the devastating storms. He said about 500 families will be served through the furniture bank's disaster relief efforts by September.

“It went from a $6,000 ministry to a $3 million ministry in about 10 days,” Ogburn said. “Every time we think we've reached the end of this story, God opens another door and introduces us to a new relationship, a new partner.”

On a recent Saturday, Lisa Mahoney was among those shopping for items distributed from a donated space in Moore's New City Center strip mall off Interstate 35 and 12th Street.

Mahoney said she huddled in a bathtub with pillows when the May 20 tornado pummeled its way through the house she was renting in a neighborhood area across from the Orr Family Farm. Mahoney said most of her possessions were destroyed when the tornado hit the house, and she is starting over in another rental residence in south Oklahoma City.

Recently, Mahoney, with help from First Baptist-Oklahoma City volunteer Nola Schuermann, selected a TV armoire, side tables, a couch and table to help make her new house feel like home.

“I'm utterly grateful,” she said of the furniture ministry. “I'm speechless.”

Not just a number

First Baptist-Oklahoma City volunteer Pam Wanzer is helping coordinate the furniture bank's storm victims' projects with her husband, Mike.

She said she has heard from hundreds of families trying to find furnishings, from large pieces such as couches and beds to smaller items that many people take for granted, such as dishes. Wanzer said a large donation of dish sets was snapped up in one day.

Wanzer said she talked to one couple who found an apartment to live in after their home was destroyed but had only a few lawn chairs for furniture. Another family had been living in a hotel room after the tornado. Wanzer said the family managed with no microwave or refrigerator and only an ice chest. Wanzer said the family finally found a house to rent but had no furniture to replace what was destroyed.

Ogburn said many tornado victims face these types of challenges, plus many have had to muddle through red tape to get help putting the pieces of their lives back together.

Not so at the furniture bank. Ogburn and Pam Wanzer said people don't have to qualify to obtain furnishings. Ogburn said they only have to adhere to an appointment-only policy designed to give each family time to make selections in a more personal, compassionate setting.

“This is not just about furniture. They get to tell their story to someone who wants to hear it, someone who wants to encourage them and pray with them,” Ogburn said.

“We wanted this moment when they come in here to be uniquely their moment, when they're blessed to be people and not a FEMA number.”

Pam Wanzer agreed. “We're not judging. We care, and we can help. We are telling people they don't have to qualify for it; the only thing you need to do is come and choose.”

More than possessions

Wanzer said she and her husband are certified grief and loss counselors and know that the pain of losing one's possessions through a catastrophic event goes much deeper than the loss of material items. She said possessions — including pictures, furniture and dishes — are part of an individual's comfortable, everyday schedule.

“These people have not only lost all of their material possessions but all of their routines — walking to the kitchen to get coffee, sitting in their favorite chair. Your favorite books, mugs, it's all gone,” she said. “For us to be able to give them back something to build their life back again is wonderful.”

Watching as volunteers loaded a sofa onto a pickup, Wanzer smiled.

“I'm so glad that people are coming to get what they need,” she said. “It's just another example of our whole community pulling together, everyone doing their part.”

by Carla Hinton
Religion Editor
Carla Hinton, an Oklahoma City native, joined The Oklahoman in 1986 as a National Society of Newspaper Editors minority intern. She began reporting full-time for The Oklahoman two years later and has served as a beat writer covering a wide...
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