For Susan Johnston, Central Furniture Rescue represents a full-circle journey to caring for eastern Iowa families
This story is part of the Des Moines Register’s People to Watch in 2021 series. The stories highlight Iowans we expect great things from in the coming year.
Iowa City Press-Citizen
CEDAR RAPIDS, Ia. — Susan Johnston, who grew up as a foster child in Des Moines, wasn't aware that she'd ever been homeless until three decades after the fact.
"We were evicted and I was a part of the church," she said. "I had no idea (at the time) I was homeless — the church helped me."
Years later, a serendipitous meeting between Johnston and another woman in the fall of 2018 set Johnston on a path to helping others affected by housing insecurity. The woman and her two children were preparing to move into an apartment. She had come to a biannual clothing giveaway organized by Cedar Rapids' Central Church of Christ, where Johnston was volunteering, hoping to find essential items that were impossible to afford on 30 hours a week at minimum wage, after housing costs.
Johnston's experience of sending the family home with essentials — and the peace of mind that kindness brought to the family — gave her a sense of purpose.
Her eventual leadership of the program — growing it into the nonprofit Central Furniture Rescue that worked with dozens of volunteers and helped supply home furnishings to hundreds of families in 2020 with no sign of slowing down — has made her one of the Des Moines Register's 15 People to Watch in 2021.
"(She) has no idea this is all her fault," Johnston said of the woman at the 2018 event.
When the church giveaway's previous organizers were ready to step away from the program earlier in 2018, they handed the reins to Johnston. She decided to think a little bigger, asking the church for funds to pilot a new program for six months.
She started in the garages of volunteers from the 150-member church, often having to run between the widespread locals in order to collect, store and distribute the donated items.
Darren Johnson, a minister at Central Church of Christ, said it's been wonderful to watch Johnston grow the nonprofit. Having been involved with the church since 2016, he said her efforts have helped make the church "a light in our neighborhood."
"Not only has our church has been able to rally around it, but also people in the community,” Johnson said. “They’re a ministry to the homeless, but they know what it’s like to be homeless, as a ministry.”
The church's pilot program funds enabled Johnston to create the Cedar Rapids-based nonprofit, a separate entity from the church that's committed to ensuring that those who have fallen on hard times — especially those transitioning out of homelessness — have the oft-forgotten necessities so many of us take for granted.
"When I think of myself growing up or raising my grandkids … I think of reading a book on my mom’s lap in a chair," Johnston said. "I think of getting tucked into bed. I think of cuddling on the couch watching TV. I think of eating meals around the table. You realize that your memories are centered around furniture. There are families that don’t have anything in their home."
A growing service to meet growing need
Central Furniture Rescue, a 100% volunteer-run nonprofit, helps people transitioning from homelessness find their feet. And it helps families that have lost everything in a fire. Or children transitioning from foster care. Or people being released from prison. Or, in August 2020, households that were affected by the derecho that slammed Iowa.
When the nonprofit was getting off the ground in 2019, it aided over 200 households — 43% of which had children — and, by Johnston's estimate, also diverted 88 tons of material from the landfill by collecting items that might have otherwise been thrown out.
In 2020, the organization worked with roughly 125 volunteers and helped over 400 households.
Before the nonprofit was official, it relied on garages and the goodwill of neighbors. Then it bounced from warehouse to warehouse. Now it's in two.
Ahead of an interview for this article, Johnston was at work in one of them — a warehouse she knew to contain $12,000 in donated goods.
The Cedar Rapids area, in particular, was shaken by the derecho's devastation. In August, J'nae Peterman, the director of housing services at Waypoint, a Cedar Rapids-based nonprofit that provides support for victims of domestic violence, the homeless and more and works frequently with many of the same clients being supported by Central Furniture Rescue, told KCRG she estimated 400 homeless families were being served by Waypoint following the derecho — double what the organization would typically see.
That uptick in homelessness drew attention from as far off as West Des Moines, where Carol Jensen, a finance coordinator at Lutheran Church of Hope, has been running a program similar to Johnston's but on a smaller scale.
Knowing the damage caused by the derecho, Jensen reached out to Central Furniture Rescue to offer help.
"I told her, 'We’d like to bring maybe a semi-truck worth of furniture'," Jensen recalled telling Johnston, who immediately accepted. “We’re kind of large (as a congregation) and, when we respond to things, we do it in kind of a big way. One or two semis ended up being four."
The overflow of support coming out of central Iowa meant that what was supposed to be three weeks of collecting furniture — over a couple of days each week — was shorted to two. The trucks made their way to Cedar Rapids in mid-October.
"Three of the four semis were filled to the top," Jensen said.
The moratorium on evictions due to the ongoing pandemic has meant that this year has been slower than it would have been otherwise, Johnston said — even taking the derecho into account. Next year, she expects the need will be even greater.
"The rugs have been pulled out from underneath (the people we serve) literally and figuratively," Jensen said about both her and Johnston's organizations. "(We want people to be) able to come home, eat well, sleep well and get on with the rest of their lives. So they can be comfortable with their living space."
Now, a need for permanency
When the Press-Citizen spoke with Peterman in December, she said that she and her staff at Waypoint were preparing for a surge in clientele when the evictions moratorium ends on Jan. 31.
Waypoint is looking for spaces to house those who are likely going to be displaced in the near future. But, with Johnston's organization having grown so much in the past few years, helping those who are able to get into homes has been made easier.
According to Peterman, nearly everyone who comes through Waypoint ends up being helped by Central Furniture Rescue.
"Without Susan's organization, we’d probably still be giving air mattresses out," Peterman said. "With Susan’s program and Central Furniture Rescue, it goes hand-in-hand with ending homelessness — I think people often forget how important it is for a house to feel like a home; that impacts someone’s ability to maintain their home."
Much like Waypoint, Central Furniture Rescue's biggest need right now isn't related to the items it provides.
"If we need anything specific," Johnston said, "we do a call-out on Facebook, and it shows up."
The group's current warehouses contain household necessities: mattresses, can openers, microwaves, pots and pans. Johnston said that everything donated to Central Furniture Rescue will likely only be in storage for about two weeks before it finds a new, permanent home.
What the fledgling nonprofit needs most is space.
"We need some permanency, and permanency looks like $60,000 a year," she said. "We just got our 501(c)(3) last September, but we’ve grown like we’ve been around for 10 years."
Despite the uncertainty around where that space will come from, Johnston is utterly dedicated to her task. Because of her life experience and because of her work as a former project manager for the Trapeze Group, a transit technology company, she sees herself as perfectly suited for this calling.
"It's like you have this thing you're supposed to do in your life and everything that leads up to it prepares you for that."
About 'People to Watch'
The Des Moines Register's "15 People to Watch in 2021" are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by newsroom staff from scores of reader and staff nominations. Their stories will run in the Register through Jan. 3.
Meet Susan Johnston
LIVES: Mount Vernon
EDUCATION: Ames High School, then attended DMACC, but did not graduate.
CAREER: Former project manager with the Trapeze Group. Currently retired.
FAMILY: Johnston has three daughters: Jenny, 38, Cassie, 36, and Katie, 25. Married to Gene Johnston, and, between the two of them, have eight grandchildren.
Mon., November 09, 2020
Alistair Wheeler, 3, holds a fork full of pasta for his mother, Starr Wheeler, as they eat supper Nov. 4 in their apartment in Cedar Rapids. Wheeler’s 7-month-old daughter, Amalia, watches. Fellow National Guard members helped Wheeler find an apartment for her and her children. The Central Furniture Rescue helped Wheeler furnish her apartment after her belongings were destroyed in the Aug. 10 derecho. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
When Starr Wheeler, 21, walks into her new apartment on Cedar Rapids’ southwest side, she smiles.
She and her two children moved into the apartment in September. Wheeler, who said she has been homeless on and off since she was 17, had been staying with a friend along with her children. Then the Aug. 10 derecho hit Cedar Rapids with hurricane-force winds, damaging her friend’s apartment. Like many across Cedar Rapids, the Wheelers found themselves displaced.
“It wasn’t a good environment anymore,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler, who is a member of the National Guard, stayed with fellow guard members in Des Moines while they helped her find a new apartment. But when she first moved back to Cedar Rapids, she and the kids didn’t have much to furnish the apartment with.
Her son was born with congenital cytomegalovirus, which caused hearing loss and developmental delays. He requires intensive care, so finding child care for him is difficult, and with the pandemic, she worries about his health, so she stays home with him and her daughter, making some money babysitting other children at the apartment.
She and her son, who is 3, shared a blowup mattress while her daughter, who is 7 months old, slept on a bouncy chair.
“It was not an ideal situation, but we were trying to make it work,” Wheeler said.
That’s when Central Furniture Rescue stepped in. The Cedar Rapids nonprofit, formed less two years ago, provides donated furniture and housewares to people in need.
They brought Wheeler beds for her and her son, a crib, a couch, rocking chair, bookcase and dishes.
“I just about cried, because I wasn’t expecting them to bring all of this stuff,” Wheeler said. “It feels a lot more like home. When you walk into an apartment that has furniture, you’re like, ‘Wow, welcome home.’”
When Central Furniture Rescue first formed, the nonprofit had worked exclusively with clients leaving shelters and transitioning out of homelessness. Recently, the organization has expanded its mission to help a wider array of clients who might need assistance furnishing a new place to live.
Those include people leaving prison, people aging out of foster care, and people experiencing disasters like fires — or the derecho. They’ve helped more than 25 households rebuild their lives after the storm tore off roofs, let in rain and destroyed belongings for hundreds of Cedar Rapids residents.
The organization requires a referral from another nonprofit or faith-based organization. After the August storm, founder Susan Johnston sent letters out to churches across town, letting them know the organization was ready to help people impacted by the storm.
“When the derecho hit, we realized there was a bigger need than just people transitioning out of homelessness,” Johnston said.
This year has been a period of rapid growth for the group, which started out with a few pieces of furniture in a couple of volunteers garages. It all started in November 2018 when a woman attending a clothing giveaway Johnson ran at her church, Central Church of Christ, told Johnston what she really needed was furniture. Johnston organized a donation for her, then talked with staff at Willis Dady Homeless Services and realized the need was much greater. By the end of May 2019, they had helped more than 20 families transitioning out of homelessness. In August, Johnston got 501(c) 3 status for the efforts.
Since then, they’ve grown to fill not one but two warehouses, including one in Hiawatha where rows of couches fill the floor and stacks of mattresses lean against walls. By the end of last year they had helped 227 household and are on track to meet their goal of helping 400 this year.
Johnston said the need is greater then that. They might set a goal of helping 600 households next year and could do more if they had space to store furniture and had volunteer help, she said.
“At any given time, there are 500 people homeless in Linn County,” Johnston said. “When you look at all the reasons for homelessness ... the number one reason is lack of affordable housing. Sixty percent of Linn County residents are two to three paychecks away from an eviction.”
She shared a story of one family who was living a comfortable middle class existence until the father got sick and had to quit his job. His wife also quit, to care for him. They lost their house and ended up camping during the summer, until they connected with a nonprofit that helped them get back into housing.
Johnston said the pandemic, economic downturn and derecho only highlighted preexisting vulnerabilities that exist in the community.
“Every story is different, but the same — they all have a need that we as a community can fill,” Johnston said. “None of us are safe — we could all be in a situation we never were before.”
The warehouses are rented at a greatly reduced rate, with the understanding that if the landlords find tenants who want to pay the full rate, Central Furniture Warehouse will move out. That’s already happened once. Johnston hopes they can find a more permanent solution at some point.
During the coronavirus pandemic, they’ve set up careful protocols for accepting donations and working with volunteers. People who want to donate furniture or housewares make an appointment, which allows the donation coordinator to go over what the organization needs and doesn’t accept — for example, they don’t take hutches, dressers with mirrors attached — they too often break — or sleeper sofas, which are often too heavy. Due to the pandemic, new donations sit in one corner of the warehouse for 72 hours after arrival as a precaution before being sorted and distributed.
Along with donations of tables and chairs, blankets and coffee pots, they accept cash donations, which allow them to purchase things they run low on but want to give to every household, like can openers and other cooking utensils. They use donated Kohl’s Cash to buy new pillows.
For Wheeler, having furniture is one less thing to worry about. When she thinks about the future, she hopes to continue her career with the National Guard, where she trained as a medic before giving birth to her daughter.
And she wants to keep building a good future for her kids.
“I want to just focus on my children and give them the life that they deserve,” she said. “Because they deserve the freaking world.”
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• What: Central Furniture Rescue
• Phone: (319) 382-2882
• Online: centralfurniturerescue.com
by Iowa's News Now StaffFriday, November 13th 2020
Central Furniture Rescue
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (Iowa's News Now) — November 15th to 22nd is Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.
This is an annual program that brings people together across country to draw attention to issues surrounding hunger and homelessness.
Central Furniture Rescue is pledging to help the homeless in the community, in honor of Homelessness Awareness Week.
In 2020, Central Furniture Rescue has helped 355 households in the Cedar Rapids community, including many who were transitioning out of homelessness.
Between the pandemic and the Derecho, our community has increased needs for furniture and household goods,” says Susan Johnston, Executive Director at Central Furniture Rescue. “It’s not always noticeable, but the moments that makeup a life revolve around furniture. Think of sitting down to dinner at a table or tucking your child into bed. Yet furniture is a luxury not all individuals or families have. We are so proud to have helped 355 families this year by providing household items at no cost.
Central Furniture Rescue partners with dozens of area organizations, including Willis Dady, Waypoint, and HACAP, to work with individuals and families to help them make a residence a home by providing household staples such as beds, tables, chairs, and basic kitchen items.
To help households as they transition out of homelessness by donating furniture, monetary donations, or by volunteering with the organization, please contact Central Furniture Rescue online or by phone at 319.382.2882.
By Becky Phelps
Published: Oct. 29, 2020 at 10:37 PM CDT
HIAWATHA, Iowa (KCRG) -More than two months after the derecho, many families with damaged homes are still finding new places to live.
One local non-profit is working to help those families by taking one worry away - replacing furniture.
Savanah Prine and her mother have been sleeping in chairs after they lost their apartment and most of their furniture in the derecho. “We were really scared because I was about 9 months pregnant...and all of a sudden, we heard a train sound coming through. Next thing we know we have rain just pouring into our apartment," says Prine. After two months, Prine’s family, with her newborn baby, was finally able to find another apartment-but she still didn’t have anything to put in it. “It would be super hard, because we’re on a fixed income so it would be impossible to find beds, couches, to fill up a place to live," says Prine.
Then, they reached out to Central Furniture Rescue, a Hiawatha non-profit, for help. Less than a week after Prine and her family had moved into their new apartment, C.F.R. delivered them a new place to sleep, and much more.
President and Executive Director of the Central Furniture Rescue Susan Johnston says the demand for furniture has jumped by 25% since August, and she doesn’t expect things to slow down. She says the community was already seeing a shortage of housing, and the derecho is backing things up even more. “The derecho happened in August. Well, it’s the end of October, and we’re still getting referrals. And we will keep getting referrals. There are people who will not be placed into a new place until spring," says Johnston.
Johnston says in the days after the storm her team immediately knew there would be a serious need for furniture, and they started looking for donations. But, they didn’t have to look far.
Lutheran Church of Hope in Des Moines sent them four semis with more than 900 pieces of furniture, enough to help 85-100 families.
“And we now have all of this furniture, and we’re ready. We’re ready whenever the people need it," says Johnston.
C.F.R. has given furniture to more than 300 families this year, and they have more deliveries scheduled every week. Johnston says their team will be ready to help people get back on their feet for as long as it takes. “And we want to give them one less thing to worry about. You focus on getting yourself housed. We’ll make sure we get you some furniture,” says Johnston.
Copyright 2020 KCRG. All rights reserved.
Braeden Dupree, 16, and Logan Rasmusson, 17, load a couch into the back of a pickup truck March 11 at Central Furniture Rescue in Cedar Rapids. The organization is looking for a permanent warehouse to serve 500 households annually with new-used furniture. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
CEDAR RAPIDS — Kaneisha Taylor felt “more than joy” as volunteers with Central Furniture Rescue moved furniture into her two-bedroom apartment.
Taylor, 25, gave birth three months ago to her third child and didn’t have money to fully furnish a new apartment after moving in Feb. 5. The family of four piled into Taylor’s bed each night.
“It’s like a war in my bed,” Taylor said with a laugh.
The furniture — a couch, kitchen table and chairs, toddler bed, a few end tables and some toys for the kids — will “make her home a home,” Taylor said.
But for Central Furniture Rescue to continue providing free, gently used furniture to Eastern Iowans like Taylor, it needs a permanent warehouse home to store donated furniture.
Central Furniture Rescue started in January 2019 and helped 229 households last year with an estimated $82,000 worth of household items — using a similar pricing standard as Salvation Army.
Couches, beds, kitchen tables, pots and pans, and other household goods are donated to Central Furniture Rescue and delivered to people in need referred by HACAP, Willis Dady, Waypoint, the Abbe Center and Family Promise.
The program moved from two garages into a 4,800-square-foot warehouse, courtesy of owner Adam Gibbs, until that warehouse was rented. Gibbs offered to let the organization move into a different, 12,000-square-foot vacant warehouse, which it did Jan. 25.
That warehouse now also has been rented, and the organization has to move again by May 1.
“We are in no better shape than the clients we help,” said Susan Johnston, founder of Central Furniture Rescue. “We are transient and unstable, and we cannot focus on the future if we don’t have a stable place to be.”
In a perfect world, Johnston hopes someone with an empty warehouse can lease it to Central Furniture Rescue for five years for $1 a year. She doesn’t want Central Furniture Rescue to own a building because it’s not “financially responsible” for the organization. “What happens if we suddenly don’t need the building anymore?” she said.
“We need to have warehouse space to be able to have an inventory of at least three weeks’ worth of deliveries at a time,” Johnston said. “That would have to be storage to hold 150 beds, 50 couches ... at a minimum 10,000 square feet.”
As of mid-March, Central Furniture Rescue had made 75 deliveries in 2020, and Johnston said they are behind. Johnston estimates they will reach 500 households this year, delivering to almost 10 households a week.
Central Furniture Rescue relies on volunteers to make deliveries, donating their vehicles, gas and time to move furniture from the warehouse to someone’s home.
On the third Saturday of each month, they host a “blitz” — using as many volunteers as possible to make as many deliveries as possible. During the February blitz, 39 people showed up to move furniture.
On March 11, Chris Lindsay, 11, joined his dad Mike Lindsay, and a dozen other volunteers to move furniture into Kaneisha Taylor’s apartment.
It was the second time Chris volunteered to move furniture from the warehouse.
“I like their reactions” when bringing people furniture, Chris said. “It makes us feel good.”
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Sarah Kay LeBlanc Des Moines Register
For more than a year, Cedar Rapids-area Central Furniture Rescue Director Susan Johnston has been working tirelessly to help those leaving bad situations or entering a new phase of life.
When her organization became the one that needed help after the derecho struck Aug. 10, leaving Central Furniture Rescue without power for about two weeks, Des Moines furniture bank FreeStore was ready.
Johnston said when Marty Rathje, FreeStore's board chair, reached out and asked what her organization needed, she was ready with a list.
On Tuesday, FreeStore volunteers responded by loading up two trucks with mattresses, chairs, couches, kitchen tables and other household items for those recently displaced by the storm. They delivered the items Wednesday.
Central Furniture Rescue is a furniture bank that furnishes homes for free to help those transitioning out of homelessness. Johnston started the organization in 2019. She said FreeStore, which has been a nonprofit for about 16 years, has been her mentor.
So far this year, Johnston said the rescue has helped 242 households. She expects an increase in need from the derecho. She's already received calls for help, but knows there will be more when people who have been displaced are able to move into a new home.
"Right now I can’t give them furniture if they don’t have a home to live in, but we need to be ready for when that happens," she said.
Greg Buelow, Cedar Rapids' public safety communications coordinator, said 914 residential properties and 94 commercial properties sustained major damage in the storm. The fire department has declared 111 residential and 33 commercial properties unsafe to occupy.
When those who have been displaced move back into their homes or find other shelter, Central Furniture Rescue will be ready to help. The organization takes referrals from agencies such as homeless shelters, churches and the department of corrections.
The FreeStore focuses on helping people who have been in domestic violence situations. The store also assists homeless youth.
To make sure all donations the organization is giving are safe and protected from COVID-19, FreeStore volunteers put newly donated items in a large storage unit for 72 hours before giving them to others.
FreeStore Secretary Harry Swanson said the organization followed that same protocol before loading items onto the trucks bound for Cedar Rapids. He said he hopes the items will allow Central Furniture Rescue to help as many people as possible.
"We don't have a goal other than to make sure that they're successful," he said. "We know they're going to be hit with a lot of requests."
Sarah LeBlanc covers trending news for the Register. Reach her at 515-284-8161 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Central Furniture Rescue started about a year ago. (Jordee Kalk/KCRG)(KCRG)
By Jordee Kalk
Published: Dec. 21, 2019 at 11:27 AM CST
A non-profit in Cedar Rapids helped 10 families transitioning out of homelessness on Saturday, by delivering furniture.
.Central Furniture Rescue started about a year ago.
Volunteers collect furniture and other household items and then provide those items to families in need.
The non-profit works with other nonprofits to connect with families struggling with homelessness.
"There was a time I was volunteering and we delivered a bed. And a little seven-year-old boy comes running up and hugs my leg and says 'Thank you for helping my mommy take care of us,'" Executive director Susan Johnston said.
Volunteers helped 215 households this year. They expect to serve even more families next year.
A group of volunteers for Central Furniture Rescue including Lori Stout, Darren Johnson, Gene Johnston, Tricia Miller, Shane Warden and Frank Watland move a chair during a delivery on Aug. 3. (Courtesy of Central Furniture Rescue)
CEDAR RAPIDS — Susan Johnston was volunteering at her church — Central Church of Christ, 1500 First Ave. NW — coordinating a giveaway for families in need in January when she recognized a need for those transitioning from being homeless or an abusive relationship into new housing.
“When individuals and families transition from homelessness to a new place to live, they often don’t have basic things, Johnston said. “Things you and I might take for granted. It’s not just clothing and household items they need, but furniture.”
Beds, kitchen tables, couches, chairs, dishes, pots and pans, and more — goods a typical household would have to function — are in demand, she said, adding that even if the person had found furniture on Craigslist or at Goodwill, hauling it home might present an entirely different set of barriers.
Johnston came up with a solution. She would test out a new charity that rescues furniture and home goods before they hit the landfill and redirect them to those in need. She called it the Central Furniture Rescue.
It worked so well, she formed a 501(c) (3) and is now leasing warehouse space to help run the operation. They had been just using volunteers’ garages. Horizons also allows free access to a box truck to help with deliveries.
Within four months, the organization had served 21 households. To date, there is a roster of around 60 volunteers who have helped distribute $32,000 worth of goods — using a similar pricing standard as Salvation Army — to 100 households. Each household averaged 22 items worth a total of $325.
She recounted a story of a woman starting a new job the following Monday and had moved into a new home with nothing and had two little girls. Within two weeks, they were fully furnished. Another family of six had been sleeping on the floor in their new home. A couple who spent last winter in the overflow shelter were so proud to have jobs and a place of their own, she said.
She recalled a little girl, after a delivery of cookware, say to her mom, “Mommy, you can cook for us again,” and the mom cried.
“It just breaks your heart,” Johnston said, breaking down in sobs. “It is a life-changing experience. Once you do it a couple of times, when you go to Target, you start to think different about what you put in the cart.”
Deliveries occur most nights of the week. Referrals come from local organizations including Waypoint, Abbe Center, Family Promise, Willis Dady and others.
“It can be so difficult for us to house as many households as we do and expect them to feel like their new place is a home when it is empty,” Alicia Faust of Willis Dady said in a message to Johnston. “Your program allows them to feel like it is a home.”
Alexis Chadwick, domestic violence program coordinator for Waypoint, refers clients who in some cases have fled from unsafe situations with a vehicle’s worth of items or less. And, while places exist to supply low-cost home goods, clients may not have a job and are starting over completely.
“They provide it for free and also deliver for the families and that makes all the difference,” Chadwick said. “It makes a home feel like a home and takes the burden off a parent or parents of something that could take them days and get it done in 20 minutes.”
Donations support the operation, but it still costs about $80 per family, Johnston said.
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Central Furniture Rescue