Harford Co. program furnishes comfort


Latasha Wright moved from Miami to Harford County with two children, the clothes they were wearing and little else.

After arriving this fall, Wright and her children - Octavia, 2, and Jahad, 3 - slept on a mattress on the floor of their house in Street.

Wright contacted the Harford County Department of Social Services and learned about a program that provides donated furniture to needy families. Wright didn't have high expectations about the quality of the items she might receive. But she had nothing, so she requested furniture for the whole house.

"When I signed up, I thought whatever they would bring would just be garbage because most people don't give away good stuff. Boy, was I wrong," said Wright, 25. "They brought me beautiful stuff. I got bunk beds for the kids, a bedroom group for me, a china cabinet with the china that goes in it, a sofa, chairs and end tables.

"When I saw it, I thought, `This can't be true.' It was just so unreal," she said.

The Wright family is one of more than 3,000 that have been helped during the 17 years that the program - Neighbors - has existed. The program is administered through the county Department of Community Services' Volunteer Connection.

Names of potential recipients are compiled by agencies that work with low-income families and sent to the Volunteer Connection office. Donors and recipients are matched, and volunteers coordinate the pickup and delivery of furniture in good condition.

"It's not uncommon for us to have a waiting list of 100 people with furniture needs," said Joy Brewster, community resources coordinator for the county government, who administers the furniture program. "We have people that need everything, so it may take us more than six months to meet all their needs."

Two couples from Forest Hill are integral to making the program work. Tuesdays, Nancy Clayton and Mary Schruefer volunteer in the county office matching families with donated items. Their husbands - John Clayton and Joseph Schruefer - arrange for the pickup and delivery of furniture. Fridays, the men make deliveries to about a half-dozen families.

John Clayton first heard of the program when its founder, Robert Varelli, put out the call for volunteers at the Claytons' church, Bel Air United Methodist. Clayton persuaded members of his barbershop chorus to donate a truck they had bought for $1 and used for a couple of years to haul equipment.

"I did about $1,200 worth of work on the truck, and then when the insurance became too expensive on it we donated it to the church to be used for the Neighbors program," he said.

Since then, the church has supported the program by providing a truck. A couple of years ago, it purchased new Isuzu pickup.

Clayton took over the volunteer duties in the mid-1990s, after Varelli died. He says the reward comes from knowing he's doing something for people who want to help themselves.

"Sometimes you go into a house and it's just so nice and neat, and you know you're helping someone do something better for themselves," John Clayton said. When households are less organized, "we feel like we're giving them a chance to improve themselves. But, either way, I feel like I'm making a difference."

The impact is often substantial for the families receiving donations, Brewster said.

"Some people sit down and cry," she said, "while others call and say, `Thank you so much - my child doesn't have to sleep on the floor anymore.' They are just so overwhelmed by the help."

The Schruefers say their motivation is similar to that of the Claytons.

"How can you not feel good about helping people when some of them are just having such a hard time?" said Mary Schruefer, recounting the time the program assisted a woman in Aberdeen who had health problems and five children. "How could anyone not want to help? She's trying, but she needs help, and we try to do what we can."

John Clayton agreed.

"When I think of what doing this means to me, the phrase `polishing your halo' comes to mind," he said. "I don't know if that's appropriate; all I know is that doing this sure makes me feel good."

As for Wright, the earlier-than-expected delivery of furniture made her so proud of her new home that she invited her family for the holidays.

"Neighbors is so great," she said. "I get to have everyone over for Christmas in my comfortable, beautiful home. I am so very grateful."

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