Basic services are never basic to those in need of them. Every day at St. Anthony’s, we see the affect a good meal or warm clothes can have on someone, especially if they’re homeless and hungry and cold. It is our hope that sustainment eventually leads to stability, which, in the case of most of our guests, means finding a place to live. But even when that does happen, the work doesn’t end there. Think about all the things that make you happy, that make you safe and secure, that are currently required to lead the life that you’re living; and now remove all those things. You have an empty room, a cupboard that is bare, a refrigerator that is empty but for an opened box of baking soda, and a closet with the few clothing items you managed to hold on to while you were homeless. What now? Well, that’s where SF Smiles comes in.
SF Smiles is a San Francisco-based non-profit organization that works to provide individuals and families in need with basic necessities by collecting furniture, home essentials, toiletries, clothing, and baby gear from the community and redistributing to those who need them the most. SF Smiles serves homeless and low-income individuals and families, victims of domestic violence, and people with developmental and mental health related disabilities by distributing these much needed items either directly to those in need or to the programs that directly serve them.
But I’ll let Chad Christensen, Founder and Director of SF Smiles, tell you more about the program himself:
Tell me a little about your work and what you do at SF Smiles?
Basically, what I do is pick up donations from people in the community who are getting rid of things. The donors are varied – sometimes it will be a family clearing out items their children have outgrown; offices that are remodeling/relocating/closing that give us furniture, microwaves, miscellaneous supplies; we get leftovers from estate sales; we get furniture from people who are moving or redecorating their homes; you name it. I collect a huge variety of items, have volunteers help me organize them and then use those items to fulfill requests that come in from individuals and families. The referrals to our program primarily come through the staff of other agencies of which the individuals/families are clients. Their social worker will assess their needs and assist them with completing the request form. I fill the requests on a first-come, first-served basis depending on what I have in stock at the time. Items typically go out as quickly as they come in.
Tell me a little about your life and what led to you getting into this kind of work?
I have always been a caregiver, a non-profit worker, a creative person who likes to do things differently than everyone else. And if you ask my wife, I can never pass up a perfectly good, usable item left on the sidewalk. I started collecting odds and ends that I found knowing that SOMEONE needed it and I would quickly find a home for it. Through my old job at a local non-profit agency serving people with disabilities, I always knew of someone in need. When I lost my job a few years ago, I knew I wanted to start something new that would make people smile. We actually had the name before we knew exactly what we were going to do. SF Smiles all started with a group of people brainstorming ways to help the community and has evolved to what it is today – a service which helps people in need access essential living items. We started by networking with a few local agencies whose clients we could help and in the past six months the number of requesting agencies has skyrocketed to over 20. These are 20+ organizations whose clients are in need of home and family essentials.
What is the most rewarding part of your work? What do you enjoy most about it?
The smiles from individuals and families when you show up at their front door with the items they had requested! Many are so overwhelmed with joy and happiness you can tell that it’s now one less thing to worry about! The parents might be single parents or couples who have so many things that they are trying to work out. Being a single parent, going back to school, a new job, an empty home, a not so great past and now they are ready to move forward in their new journey. We are so happy that we can help them worry about one less thing!
What is the most frustrating part of it?
We have grown so fast and have such limited space for storing items. By not having a larger space to store more donations and without a space we cannot promote SF Smiles in a bigger way, we cannot collect all of the donations that get offered to us, which means we can’t yet serve as many families as we want. Many might go weeks without any furniture or household items.
Tell me a little about what other types of things you’re doing for the community?
I’ve always wanted my work to have a larger impact and the way I see it, I want SF Smiles to be a megaphone for the other amazing organizations in SF that the average person may not know about. Through social media, events, donation drives, and simple word of mouth, SF Smiles raises public awareness about the great agencies that we are connected with.
For a while, we ran a program called “Sandwiches & Smiles” which gathered a group of volunteers from Project Insight, the Haight Street Clinic and SF Smiles to make sandwiches and bag lunches for local homeless people.
Sometimes participants from the agencies we serve come and volunteer, helping us sort donations and get things organized.
What’s next for you and SF Smiles?
Next up – we definitely need a space. We are operating out of our garage at the moment, which means we have limited space and also don’t have a public drop-off place for donors or a place that clients can come pick out what they want. We are actively looking for space and once we have a space that we can invite clients to, that donors can drop off donations to, we will be able to cast a wider net to pull in more donations and serve more families.
And – Funding! We are currently volunteer-run and operating on a small budget which covers our basic expenses. We are exploring different funding opportunities to make SF Smiles a robust organization.
Do you know someone who works for the city? Do you or do you know someone who might have free or inexpensive space somewhere for storing donations? Are you a grant writer or do you know any grant writers?
If you have questions, ideas, suggestions or would like to help out-please call Chad at (415) 412-7101 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you would like to donate clean and usable furniture, household items, toys, clothing and baby items please visit our website www.sfsmiles.org for a complete list of what we are looking for.
In photo, from left: Chad of SF Smiles and his friend Rita