Turning the tables
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Albert Einstein once said, “A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy?” Ellen Nunes knows the meaning of those words all too well. Twenty six years ago when she moved to South Lake Tahoe, Nunes didn’t have a table to sit at and feed her son.
“It’s a very symbolic thing,” Nunes said. “It’s a symbol of something I couldn’t get.”
After leaving an abusive relationship and a job as Cleopatra at Caesars Tahoe, Nunes began work at a small furniture store. She remembers the day she was able to buy the small, square glass-topped oak table and chairs that she’d wanted so badly.
“It was a good day,” she said. “Being able to provide for my son, having a space I could have friends over and not be embarrassed, was an incredible feeling.”
In 2010, Nunes started the Dinner Table Project, named after that experience, as an offshoot of Clean Tahoe Program, where she currently works as the program director. Working with community agencies like the Women’s Center and Tahoe Youth and Family Services, the Dinner Table Project aims to collect discarded or donated furniture and give it to people in need.
“It made a house a home – that’s the bottom line.” said Louise, who recently moved to South Lake Tahoe without any household items and received a love seat, a recliner, desk and an end table from the Dinner Table Project. “It brought community. It brought quality of life.”
The project’s furniture has been found, donated and salvaged. A lot of it would have otherwise gone to the dump, Nunes said.
“We pulled a table out of a snow bank that was in pretty good shape,” Nunes said. “Wrought iron, thank goodness. It probably wouldn’t have lasted.”
When Edgewood bought the C&M Sixty Rooms motel near the “Y,” it was still full of furniture. Though Edgewood plans on demolishing the building, they didn’t want to just throw the furniture away, said Brandon Hill, a spokesman for the company.
“We tried to donate everything that was salvageable,” Hill said. “There was a substantial amount of usable furniture.”
Nunes and the field crew from Clean Tahoe pulled tables, chairs, lamps, art, desks and dressers from the lodge’s 50 rooms.
“We’re taking tables and dressers,” Nunes said as she walked out with a pink lamp. “We needed those big time. And there’s a lot of art on the walls. Those things can mean a lot to families.”
It feels good for people to donate their furniture and more people are willing to donate if they know it’s going to someone who needs it, Nunes said.
“You can see how it touches the people that come through to have something nice come into their house so they can function as a family,” she said.
With the help of Clean Tahoe, the Dinner Table Project was recently rented space in a warehouse to store and work on the furniture. Nunes and the Clean Tahoe crew clean upholstered items and do small repairs to pieces that need it.
“There’s a few pieces that need a little love, but the majority of stuff is ready to go,” Nunes said.
In the two and a half months the project has had the space, Nunes and volunteers have helped 20 families and have seen hundreds of pieces of furniture come through. People who need furniture can go to the warehouse and browse the collection. If they find something they like, the Dinner Table Project will deliver it free of cost.
“She (Ellen) welcomed me like I was in a store,” Louise said. “I felt like I was in a store picking out furniture. She made it fun.”
With so much furniture being thrown out, the Dinner Table Project goes hand in hand with her work at the Clean Tahoe Program, which strives to pick up as much litter in the Tahoe Basin as possible, Nunes said.
“For six years, I’ve been watching furniture go to the dump,” Nunes said. “We picked up 118 tons of trash last year. A lot of that was furniture.”
But there are limits to what they can except. The project cannot afford to clean and sanitize mattresses or repair appliances or furniture that is badly damaged. Both of these limits have to do with the amount of funding they currently have, Nunes said.
The Dinner Table Project is operating on grants from the Soroptimist Club, help from Clean Tahoe Program and volunteer efforts.
Writing the grant applications reminded her of the table she wanted so badly to have, Nunes said.
“I cried all the way through that grant. It was so personal, so heartfelt,” she remembered.
The project is working towards sustaining itself, Nunes said. Participants who’ve received furniture have already turned around and donated their time. But with the rising cost of gas, the Dinner Table Project will have to search for funds sooner than they expected, Nunes said.
“There’s definitely a lot more people we could help if we were a bigger operation,” she said.
For more information on the Dinner Table Project visit http://www.Clean-Tahoe.org.
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