“Imagine your home as it was when you left it this morning and then when you go back it’s totally empty and you have to replenish all of that,” says Julian Cash. “That’s basically what we do.”
The 48-year-old was recently called out to a place not from his own home in Pontycymer, Wales. The flat was cold and empty, save for an elderly woman sat on a deck chair in the middle of the living room. It turned out the woman had nothing – even the deck chair had been kindly provided by a neighbour.
The woman has been in hospital for six months and had fallen behind on her home payments, Julian discovered. “She’d slipped through the cracks and had lost her furnished house,” he says.
Julian got to work and by the end of the day the woman was surrounded by furniture, ornaments and textiles. For no cost at all, Julian and a small team of volunteers had transformed her barren flat into a home.
In the five years of running the charity Community Furniture Aid (CFA) alongside his wife Marianne, Julian has fully furnished around 350 houses and part-furnished another 150, helping an incredible 1,400 people in the process.
“We turn up somewhere that’s empty at the start of the day, and by the end of the day they’re living in it,” he says.
CFA is a simple concept – the couple collect donated furniture that would otherwise be taken to landfill or charity shops and use it to refurbish the homes of people living in extreme poverty or escaping domestic abuse, people who have next to nothing.
“We turn up and it’s concrete floors, bare walls. All they have is what’s in their bag,” he says. “They have to make a home with very little. We kit out houses to make it homely – and it’s not just basic furniture. We provide bedding, pictures for the walls, mirrors, ornaments, lamps and lampshades. We also do a food parcel so they can make something for their first meal in the property.”
Kevin, 46, (who preferred not to share his surname) received a furniture donation from CFA after his home and belongings were repossessed. “I got furniture for the whole house,” he tells HuffPost UK. “It gave me a little bit of confidence back knowing that nobody could take my furniture away again.
“It might not seem like much to some people, but it’s a treasure trove for people who have got nothing.”
Kevin is now a CFA volunteer himself and has been driving furniture to clients for about four years. “It gets me out of the house and I’m meeting people,” he says. “CFA not only helps the clients, getting them back on their feet, but also with the volunteers as well. It gives you confidence because you can see you’re helping people.
“You go to a place and they’ve got nothing, and then by the end of it they’re smiling and sometimes crying because of something you’ve done to help them.”
Julian’s wife Marianne, 50, is registered disabled so tends to work from home while Julian does the hard grafting with volunteers – his typical working week is 60 hours and he estimates he has two days off a month, including weekends.
The pair live a frugal life on Marianne’s disability allowance, but the most important thing for them is to be able to help people.
“We bought an old church in our village which was derelict and we use that to store the furniture,” says Julian. “I swapped my car for a van. The charity’s office is in the front room of our house.”
When they registered CFA as a charity five years ago, the couple thought they’d be helping a few people a week, but things soon spiralled. They now have requests coming in to refurbish homes in London, Glasgow, Liverpool and Norfolk – however, with a small team of only nine volunteers, they aren’t able to travel that far. At the moment, they’re serving Bridgend County Borough.
“The need is there,” he adds, but it’s simply impossible for them to help that many people out of a tiny church in the Welsh valley.
Since 2013, CFA has received 1,200 furniture donations, 90 of which have been full house clearances. “We have a 98% recycle rate,” Julian says proudly. “We save about 30 tonnes a year from going to landfill – and there’s only four of us doing the manual labour.”
Julian has witnessed intense poverty during his time refurbishing people’s homes.
“We’re called into places a lot of people don’t see,” he says, describing children sleeping on the floor, clothes piled up and just two dinner plates for a family of five. “They’re too scared to tell people because they don’t want their children taken away,” he continues. “They live in a bad state. [But] we get our foot in the door, can see the conditions they’re living in, and can help.”
As a result of their amazing work the couple will receive national recognition at the British Citizen Awards on 24 January, attending a ceremony at the Palace of Westminster, London. Recently they were delighted to receive a letter from a woman whose house had been furnished just before Christmas: “She said that thanks to us she’s managed to move on with her life.”
The Cashes call themselves ‘charity ninjas’ because they go about their work with as little disruption as possible. “A lot of people we deal with have hit rock bottom, they’re in such a bad place because they’ve got nothing,” says Julian. “They probably wouldn’t even know who it was that helped them.”
Asked what drives him to spend 60 hours a week helping others for free, Julian responds: “I could easily sit at home and care for my wife but I see that we’ve got a throwaway society, where so many things that can be used are taken to landfill. At the same time I see a lot of people struggling, and there’s no need for that when you see so much stuff being thrown out that has a good shelf life still.
“We do it because it’s helping people who don’t have a voice.”
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