Originally Published Thursday, March 8, 2012 4:29PM EST

Sandie Benitah, cp24.com

At first glance, the items strewn across the warehouse floor of Parkdale’s Furniture Bank might seem like simple pieces of furnishings but for women who are struggling to make a new life for themselves, they represent the fuel that will empower their first steps towards success.

As Toronto celebrates International Women’s Day on Thursday, Furniture Bank was built on the idea that women, their children and other vulnerable members of society should feel that their lives are worth celebrating every day.

Founded by Sister Anne Schenck in 1998, Furniture Bank has been able to meet their commitments by forming partnerships with 73 organizations around Toronto, including a large number of shelters that house and aid women in need.

Photos

Alissa Sinitsyna has made her house a home with the donations she received from Furniture Bank.

Alissa Sinitsyna has made her house a home with the donations she received from Furniture Bank.

Furniture

Furniture

Last year alone, Furniture Bank served more than 2,500 women coming through those agencies. In the past three years, the organization has helped nearly 8,000 women start their life anew.

The tradition of honouring women and vulnerable members of society was started by a remarkable woman herself.

Schenck has received a number of public accolades for her philanthropic work and advocacy for social justice. One of her biggest fans in fact was the late political leader Jack Layton, who went door-to-door in an effort to help her secure space for what would eventually become the Furniture Bank.

Furniture Bank was just one way she could put her philosophy of equality for all to work for all, says Susanna Kislenko, the organization’s executive director of development.

Schenck was out of town and unavailable for comment but Kislenko told CP24.com that the organization’s founder has a history of empowering others, first as a secondary school teacher and principal and then as a social activist with a refugee centre known as Herron Place.

“It was after Herron Place closed that Sister Anne realized there was still a strong need out there that wasn’t being met,” she said. “She collected furniture, contacted organizations and founded Furniture Bank. The rest is history.”

The rest is not so much about history as it is about the future of the women receiving the donated furniture.

The stories that staff members hear on a daily basis are both heartbreaking and heartwarming, said Kislenko.

“It’s always interesting to see the reactions of people who come pick out their furniture,” she said. “Everyone has a story and the pieces of furniture we give them are part of that story too because it symbolizes a step forward in their lives, so when they actually receive that piece, they are excited, emotional and best of all, hopeful.”

‘I’m so, so proud’

Alissa Sinitsyna is one such woman who is starting a new chapter in her life with the donations she is receiving from Furniture Bank. On Wednesday, Sinitsyna went to the warehouse and picked out 16 items, including a bed, sofa, desk, armchair, linens and housewares.

Sinitsyna was referred to the organization by the Fred Victor Centre, a woman’s shelter in Toronto where she had been staying before being approved for subsidized housing.

“I was traumatized in the past,” she told CP24.com in a telephone interview after her visit to the warehouse. “I had bad memories and the word ‘home’ didn’t sound good to me when I thought about it. But I was thinking about having a new start in my life.”

She admits she wasn’t too hopeful when she first stepped into the warehouse but then a piece of furniture caught her eye.

“I saw furniture that reminded me of my grandparents’ house and it felt like home, you know, a good warm feeling,” she said, laughing. “I found some really nice pieces and the picture started cutting itself out in my mind. I was shy to take furniture but the lady said no, please look around and she encouraged me and showed me around.”

Getting people to pick their own furniture is instrumental to their program, Kislenko explained.

“We are here to empower people and the first step of empowerment is giving people the freedom of choice and independence,” she said.

Sinitsyna said the result was more than she ever dared hope for.

“You have to see my apartment, it’s really adorable,” she added. “I love it and I’m so, so proud. I didn’t know how much money or time it would have taken me to get it all together. I didn’t have any expectations but seeing it all together, it encourages me and I’m so happy to come home.

“It really changes everything,” she said. “It’s joyful. I’m really happy.”

Sinitsyna is one story among dozens. One woman named Anne told CP24.com about how the Furniture Bank donated furniture to her and her children after their rental home was infested with bed bugs and their belongings had to be thrown out. Another told us about how The Furniture Bank not only gave her furniture, they gave her a job through their employment program known as ‘Legup.’

Looking forward, The Furniture Bank is hoping to expand their employment program so that it can assist more women, youth and other vulnerable members of society with getting off the streets and into their own homes for good.

“We are an early stop in the beginning of their new chapter,” said Kislenko. “We really see ourselves as a place of empowerment so that they can take the next step and improve their life. Whether it’s with furniture or skills, we strive to do whatever we can to help them on their journey.”

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