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updated: 5/17/2011 3:10 PM

DuPage's Sharing Connections marks 25 years of giving

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  • Leeanne McGrath launched Sharing Connections 25 years ago when she bought one crib at a garage sale to donate to a family in need. The organization now has two warehouses in Downers Grove.

      Leeanne McGrath launched Sharing Connections 25 years ago when she bought one crib at a garage sale to donate to a family in need. The organization now has two warehouses in Downers Grove.
    Bev Horne/Daily Herald, 2004

  • Legal changes have made it difficult to come by used cribs that can be given to families in need. Sharing Connections has committed to putting cash donation toward buying new qualifying cribs instead.

      Legal changes have made it difficult to come by used cribs that can be given to families in need. Sharing Connections has committed to putting cash donation toward buying new qualifying cribs instead.
    Bev Horne/Daily Herald, 2004

  • Sharing Connections relies heavily on volunteers, who take in and organize donations so that qualifying families can pick out items they need and like.

      Sharing Connections relies heavily on volunteers, who take in and organize donations so that qualifying families can pick out items they need and like.
    Bev Horne/Daily Herald, 2008

 
 

"Goodness is contagious" is how Leeanne McGrath explains the success of the Sharing Connections Furniture Bank.

Those three little words summarize the way the Lisle resident began the Sharing Connections in 1986, and why the nonprofit organization is going strong 25 years later.

The group confronts poverty through the goodness of donors, generous volunteers and grateful recipients.

The story that began simply with a single crib now surpasses 2,717 cribs.

"A social worker told me that providing a crib could save a life," McGrath said. "I no longer had one to give since my own three children were older, but I found that first crib at a garage sale for $35."

Finding the first crib so energized McGrath that she just had to find a second crib. Giving a baby a safe place to sleep became contagious. Friends and neighbors began to ask McGrath how they could help.

Baby showers were held as a way to celebrate and provide crib recipients with some essentials.

"All of our little bits really became significant together," McGrath said.

Sharing resources from one family to another grew to include donated diapers, blankets, baby clothing and essentials. Larger items spilled out of McGrath's house and into the family's two-car garage. Soon gently-used items increased to include toys, coats, chairs, sofas, dressers, mattresses, kitchen table sets and a plethora of household items.

"I began listening to the professionals and learning," McGrath said.

When McGrath learned that food stamps could not purchase cleaning products, she encouraged local churches to hold a bucket collection that garnered hundreds of buckets filled with cleaning and personal products.

With the help of local scout troops, school drives, businesses, clubs and individuals, Christmas came early each year to the McGrath home as a drop-off center for hundreds of items destined to put a smile on a child or person in need.

In 1996, the National Caring Award was presented to McGrath and Sharing Connections, recognizing its homespun efforts. The whole McGrath family was on hand to receive the award in Washington, D.C.

"I feel blessed to witness the donations we receive from families who shop deliberately, from groups who conduct special collections and from businesses who share their products," McGrath said.

People with something to share were pleased to make a difference in the life of another person. Struggling client families were thrilled at the choices they were offered at no cost. The link is what Sharing Connections provides -- always with respect, caring and dignity.

Somewhere between deliveries to Port Ministries, Restoration Ministries, Marillac House, St. Vincent de Paul and People's Resource Center, McGrath began to pray and hope for a warehouse so that Sharing Connections could continue its growth.

In 2001, Sharing Connections moved to a 4,700-square-foot warehouse at 5111 Chase Ave. in Downers Grove, a short drive from the McGrath garage. By 2006, the organization had serviced more than 5,000 individuals, of which 56 percent were children.

As if by divine intervention, first one truck and then another were added to pick up weekly donations. A board of trustees added their expertise along with a small army of volunteers and a few staff members to get the job done. Generous friends pledged a monthly donation to pay expenses.

"Our board has been very thoughtful under Leeanne's guidance trying to be good stewards of the furniture we get donated as well as the financial donations we receive," said Executive Director Ann Wohlberg. "Ninety percent of our donations come from individuals, and that includes everything from a donor that gives us $10 in an envelope that reads, 'Keep up the good work,' to a donor who can give an annual gift of $10,000."

Wohlberg said every client family is first screened by a social service agency for eligibility based on extremely low-income or those hit by crises. The warehouse is neatly arranged as a showroom so recipients may select the furniture and household items they wish to own.

In 2008, Sharing Connections added the words Furniture Bank to help clarify its name, and a year later added a neighboring warehouse to increase the available space to 8,000 square feet. Last year, the volunteer-driven organization served 1,101 families and 3,019 children with roughly 300 volunteers donating 13,152 hours of service.

"If we did not have our volunteers, we could not do the work we do," Wohlberg said.

This year, Sharing Connections Furniture Bank used a generous donation to establish an endowment fund to ensure it will be in place to help low-income families in the future.

Despite changes in crib bar spacing and the newest legislation prohibiting the sale or giving away cribs with drop sides, Sharing Connections Furniture Bank continues to honor its vow to provide babies with a safe place to sleep.

In January, a federal crib safety law outlawed drop-side baby cribs. The Sharing Connections board stepped up to the plate and budgeted $8,000 from the organization's reserves to purchase cribs, Wohlberg said.

A Beds for Babies fund was established so designated donations can go directly to purchasing new fixed-side cribs because it may be several years before those special cribs hit the secondhand market.

On Saturday, May 21, Wiesbrook Elementary School in Wheaton will have a 5K run and one-mile walk to raise money for Sharing Connections. The eighth annual golf outing is Aug. 8 at Seven Bridges in Woodridge. The $250 tickets include lunch and often sell out.

Call (630) 971-0565, ext. 224, to register for either event. Call extension 300 for donations or to arrange a pickup service. Details are at sharingconnections.org.

"Let's tap into our resources to help people," McGrath said. "We are still a young and growing organization. The volunteer dedication and spirit of compassion is contagious."

• Joan Broz writes about Lisle. Email her at jgbroz@yahoo.com.

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