On this week’s edition of the Joy Beat, we’re celebrating an Acton-based nonprofit.

All across Massachusetts, many have made that first giant step toward stability and secured housing. But building a home doesn’t stop there. What about a bed? A couch? A dining table, chairs and other basic furnishings?

That’s where Household Goods comes in. Each year, the organization provides over 2,500 homes with 60,000 pieces of furniture and household items — and it’s all free of charge. Through their work, Household Goods gives people in need an extra hand to make their space a sanctuary.

Sharon Martens, executive director of Household Goods, joined GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss the lives transformed by the organization’s efforts. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

Arun Rath: First off, tell us about the origins of Household Goods. It’s an interesting story.

Sharon Martens: It is an interesting story. I think Household Goods’ origins are very unique because it was more of a chance of fate, or luck, or some people would say divine intervention.

Back in the 1990s, a woman had fled the violence in El Salvador, and she joined her sister in Acton. Her sister happened to call a local church, and luck would have it that Barbara Smith answered the phone. She asked if anybody at the church could help furnish the apartment she had just found for her sister.

Barbara, being one of the most amazing people on this planet, said, “Of course we can help, and we will help.” They offered her and her husband Ira’s carport as a collection point.

They were overrun with donations for this woman. They furnished her apartment, and then Barbara and her husband looked at everything else that they had left and said, “Well, why don’t we call the Acton Housing Authority? We’ll give it to them, and we’ll be done.”

Well, there was another twist of fate — maybe it was a misunderstanding. But the Acton Housing Authority published Barb and Ira’s phone number in their newsletter and said, “If you need anything, just call Barb and Ira.” People called, and Barb and Ira just kept saying yes.

They’d ask for a couch, and they would get three. They would ask for a dresser, and they would get five dressers, two couches and a bed. They kept on doing this, and over 30 years later, because of that first act of kindness, we furnished over 54,000 homes.

cropped Showroom.jpg
For three decades, Household Goods and its volunteers have helped all kinds of low-income families furnish their homes, free of charge.
Courtesy of Sharon Martens

Rath: What a wonderful story. Give us a sense of the scale from when it started off with that one family in need, and what it is today.

Martens: Over the last 34 years, it’s grown from helping one family to, last year, we furnished almost 2,900 homes for people in need. And in the 30-plus years, we’ve given away almost one million items.

Rath: We hear about the housing crisis all the time, but it seems that we don’t hear as much about people needing that kind of help after they’ve secured housing. Tell us a bit more about the kind of individuals and the kind of families that you’re helping, and what it means to them.

Martens: You’re absolutely right. When people do finally get housing, most often it is unfurnished and empty. That’s where we come in.

We have a huge range of people who are referred to us for our services. Some are moving out of homeless shelters, or they’re finally getting housing after living in temporary or makeshift housing. A lot of people are survivors of domestic violence, or people who have had fires or floods. We have a lot of veterans coming through who are getting housing, and a lot of people who are really just struggling to get by ith jobs that are paying minimum wage or so.

Rath: Tell us about the people who are calling you to give.

Martens: All of the people who come here are referred by any number of social service agencies across Massachusetts. It could be a hospital system like Boston Medical Center, or it could be a small church, or anything in between. We take referrals from any established social service agency across the state.

Rath: How many volunteers does Household Goods have at this point?

Martens: Volunteers are what keeps Household Goods going. Last year, we had 1,500 people come and volunteer, and they contributed 54,000 hours.

Rath: Wow. Tell us about the volunteers. What kind of walks of life are they coming from?

Martens: Our volunteers range from teenagers who are doing community service for school, or even court-ordered community service, to people who are retired, and everybody in between.

What’s really amazing about Household Goods is that you might have somebody who’s a retired neuroscientist working next to a teenager who’s here because they’re on court-ordered community service. Everybody works together so beautifully because they all have one goal in mind: to help people in need make a home.

Rath: What brought you into this?

Martens: I’ve been at Household Goods for 14 years. Basically, I was looking for a change. I had a long commute, and I was looking for something a little more local to where I live. I just happened to open the town paper where I live and look at the ‘wanted’ ads — this was 14 years ago, when people found jobs in the paper — and I saw this posting for a manager at this organization that I’d never heard of.

So I looked it up, and I couldn’t believe that this organization was in Acton and I had never heard of it. I came in and interviewed, and I just fell in love with this place — the community of people who are coming together to help people who just need a little push to get back on their feet. It has just been so incredible.

Rath: How have these 14 years changed you and how you might think of the community?

Martens: That’s a great question. Over these 14 years, I think what’s really impacted me are the people — seeing people who are coming here. So many people who’ve had a very solid, middle-class life and something happens — maybe a job loss or an illness, and it’s like dominoes. Things just start falling apart, and it’s one loss after another.

Then, as people start rebuilding from that, they maybe get a place to stay. Then they finally get an apartment. We’re here to give that first stepping stone, so they can move on and keep building back to what they had. Those stories really surprised me at how quickly people can lose everything.

“They maybe get a place to stay. Then they finally get an apartment. We’re here to give that first stepping stone, so they can move on and keep building back to what they had.”
Sharon Martens

Rath: Wow. Well, one thing I’m thinking about in terms of stepping stones: I understand we’re coming up on May, and that’s a busy time for you with all the college students who are moving out of their dorms, some of them for the last time, right? Tell us what the month of May is like.

Martens: May is an incredibly busy month for us because a lot of people start spring cleaning in May, so we get a lot of very welcome donations. We also partner with Boston College — we have for the last 12 years — where we go through the student move out, and we collect over 6,000 items that students are leaving behind. Linens, towels, microwaves, storage bins, all sorts of things. So it’s really an incredible boost for our clients.

Rath: Finally, I want to ask you: this is the Joy Beat. We talk about these positive, substantial stories like this. What brings you joy?

Martens: I think coming to work every day is joyful because I know that I’m making a difference — or I hope I’m making a difference in people’s lives — but also being around so many volunteers who are coming here to give back and try to make the world a better place. They are so passionate and so caring about everything that they do. It really is a joy to be around that kind of generosity of spirit.