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Hand-me-downs dress up nonprofits

An L.A. group connects companies' castoff furniture with agencies that need it.

June 01, 2007|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

There's always a place to sit, no matter how many people crowd around Rose Tourje's conference table.

The huge table is in the middle of a San Pedro Street warehouse -- one that's full of chairs and other office furnishings.

There are large oak-trimmed, leather-padded executive swivel chairs from law offices. Sleek cloth-covered chrome seats from bank employee break rooms. Efficient, armless task chairs from computer workstations. Castoffs all.

Tourje is founder of Asset Network for Education Worldwide, a 2-year-old Los Angeles organization that provides free used office furniture to struggling nonprofit groups.

The furnishings are donated by private companies that are relocating or remodeling and otherwise might have turned to liquidators or demolition crews to get rid of the stuff. The companies receive a tax write-off for giving the items.

Using fees paid by the companies based on the size of their office, Tourje hires professional movers and workers from a local job-training program to haul away desks, file cabinets, seating and carpeting. Damaged or worn-out things are disassembled and separated into piles of metal, wood, plastic and carpet to be ground up and recycled.

"We act as though there's no such thing as a landfill," said Tourje -- whose organization goes by the acronym ANEW.

That means that expensive-looking furnishings from downtown high-rises can end up in a skid row mission, in a Pasadena schoolhouse or on an Indian reservation in Arizona.

Some have popped up at the Los Angeles Police Department's Internal Affairs offices in the landmark Bradbury Building at Broadway and 3rd Street. Investigators there traded their 1950s- and '60s-style steel desks and chairs for recycled oak furniture from ANEW that fits in better with the rich wood detailing in the historic 1889 structure.

Tourje, an interior designer, was working for a large engineering and architectural firm overseeing a major corporate office makeover when she got the idea for ANEW.

When she suggested to her boss that some of the furniture earmarked for the scrap pile could be saved and put to use by charitable groups, "I was told to get back to my desk," she said.

"I went back to my desk. But seeing very useful items -- usable desks and chairs, artwork, lighting fixtures -- just being thrown away into bins and taken to the landfill was a defining moment."

Soon, she said, "I was cleaning out my own desk."

Her decision to "step off the grid, away from corporate America's paycheck every two weeks" and create her own nonprofit organization was cemented when Tourje saw a 2005 news story and photos about unwanted furniture being tossed from the fifth floor of Caltrans' former downtown regional headquarters into a scrap heap.

"That was terrible. What wasn't reused could have been recycled," she said. "It's appalling to live in a throwaway-society mentality."

ANEW is not the first organization to try its hand at corporate recycling. The 17-year-old Los Angeles-based L.A. Shares uses a database to coordinate corporate donations with nonprofit recipients.

L.A. Shares uses a lottery system to divide scarce items. Under its procedures, schools and agencies pick up furniture directly from donor corporations. More than 2,500 organizations have obtained surplus goods and materials over the years.

Bert Ball, executive director of L.A. Shares, acknowledged that his organization is in competition with ANEW. He said Tourje's use of a warehouse overly complicates the reallocation of donated furniture. "I wish her well, but she should work with us," he said.

"No, thank you," said Tourje.

She said ANEW has been able to negotiate donated warehouse space -- and anticipates moving to a site in Industry -- where recipients can select furnishings. As they gather around her large warehouse conference table to work out details of their free delivery, they also obtain free interior design advice from her.

"We help them create an environment that is more pleasing. We help plan space and match the details to surplus we have in our warehouse," she said. "L.A. Shares is very selective of what they take. We take everything. In the worst case, we're able to recycle things that can't be reused."

Tourje said she traveled to Arizona and Utah to consult with Navajo and Hopi tribal officials who acquired furnishings for reservation senior citizen and teen center use. She also has worked with organizations closer to home.

The Historical Society of Long Beach obtained cubical workspaces, a dozen file cabinets and several wooden desks for a headquarters it is opening in the Bixby Knolls area. Tourje found modern furniture that will fit the decor of the 1950s-era space.

"It filled a great need. We raise funds from the grass roots and closely watch what we spend," said Julie Bartolotto, the society's executive director.

In Los Angeles, the job-training program Chrysalis is among the 38 groups that have received furniture from ANEW. The nonprofit also has provided employment to about 50 Chrysalis job trainees -- "a huge benefit for someone who's been homeless or recently incarcerated," said Tracey Roden, Chrysalis' vice president for marketing.

"We particularly need chairs. We have a mishmash -- some that work and some that don't," Roden said. Her organization also got a $3,500 mahogany conference table and $400 chairs from ANEW. "That was a huge savings for us," she said.

The use of donated furniture is an indication of a nonprofit group's thriftiness. And decent-looking furniture, Roden said, "helps a client feel like they aren't in a shabby environment. It makes them feel, 'Wow! I'm important.' "

bob.pool@latimes.com

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