Piles of unwanted furniture destined for the landfill inspired UVA students to create a platform that connects folks giving furniture away and those in need.
Each spring, students clear out their dorms and apartments in high excitement before taking off on summer adventures. And each spring, unwanted desks, beds, lamps, pots, pans and every household object imaginable pile up around Grounds and the community.
Many students participate in the Hoos ReUse donation program offered by the Office for Sustainability, Facilities Management and community partners. But still, a lot winds up in the landfill.
This really bugged Alec Brewer. A few years ago, the biomedical engineering student was increasingly interested in sustainability issues, and he saw the tremendous wastefulness of throwing away these barely used items. Several of his friends wanted to help and they began reaching out to local nonprofit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity.
“We had the idea of getting these things into the hands of people in need, on a donation basis, and enabling interaction between UVA students and the greater Charlottesville community,” Brewer says. He workshopped the idea in entrepreneurship classes taught by Prof. Jim Cheng and Prof. Andreas Addison, and in 2020, the students secured a $1,000 “E-Cup” grant to further develop the concept.
Meeting of the minds
A chance meeting at a party with a computer science student, Gio Cianciaruso, kicked the project into high gear. Cianciaruso had created an interactive website for the United Way of Greater Charlottesville to connect would-be volunteers with Central Virginia nonprofits. That same online matchmaking model could bridge the gap between people with furniture to donate and those in need. Soon, he and Brewer launched Refurnished Cville with other student co-founders Lizzie Baker, Spencer Bozsik and David Brenman.
In spring 2021, the project received a $1,500 grant from the Equity & Environment Fund, which they used to buy hand trucks, a steam cleaner, mattress bags and other supplies, and occasionally to rent vans and trucks. Refurnished does not rely on storage space, so transportation is at the core of the enterprise – and they found a community ally in the local Ford dealership which loaned the students trucks or vans on several occasions.
“I’d never really had that kind of call before," says Shannon Johnson, the Ford sales manager. “But after they explained what they were doing and needing help, I didn’t see any reason not to help them. They were doing a good thing. We took a chance and they definitely earned our trust.”
The students were able to use the Equity & Environment Fund as leverage to secure another grant, for $1,000 from the Families Helping Families Fund in Albemarle County. So far, Cianciaruso estimates, Refurnished has facilitated at least 160 donations, often with multiple items, and fielded some 300 requests through the website. They have about 40 volunteers, and in December 2021, the project was incorporated as a nonprofit.
And they have seemingly unending ambitions for the project:
- Reach out to more students who might need furniture;
- Build-out their online catalog so people in need can obtain items quickly;
- Secure a “Stage 3” E-cup grant for $5,000;
- Purchase moving vans;
- Track data such as number of items donated, weight of materials, distances traveled, people served, etc.;
- Deepen relationships with area nonprofits to get necessary items to people in need; and
- Offer complete furnishings for an apartment or house as needed for refugees and others.
Earlysville Exchange was one of their first community partners. The upscale thrift shop often gets items it can’t sell but that are perfectly usable, says owner Robbie Fisher. “They’ve been a downstream outlet for us to move furniture, and it helps the community by making sure products don’t end up in the landfill but wind up where they can be used. A year-old mattress is a godsend for someone who’s been sleeping on the floor.”
For their part, the students have learned more than just how to build a website or manage logistics on a real-world project.
“You can’t just give people items, you need to allow choice in the decision,” Brewer says. “You’re not just giving them a house, you’re allowing them to build a home. And that helps build stability and to break the cycle of homelessness and impoverishment. That was really an awakening for me – I’d never thought of it that way.”
Adds Cianciaruso: “I’ve gotten to know all parts of Charlottesville that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise known as a student. It’s very crazy – all the activity going on around UVA and two minutes away it’s a completely different world, and it’s very frustrating that most students don’t know about this. They’re so close together but separated along resource lines, along lines of equity. The mission of Refurnished is about the environment but it’s also about addressing inequities between Charlottesville and the University.”
They both encourage other students to apply for funding from the Equity & Environment Fund. It’s an underutilized resource at the University that would allow students to not only make an impact, but to also build leadership skills, make new friends and see the community," Brewer says.
Spring 2022 Moving Day:
Hoos ReUse is an annual charitable donation drive that allows students living both on- and off-Grounds to donate gently used items during move-out. Students living on-Grounds are encouraged to donate clothing, furniture, electronics, non-perishable foods, and other useful items to benefit non-profits. Check here for dates and drop-off locations.