“Every year, we saw the piles and piles of good-quality furniture in the trash,” recalls Elizabeth Baker (McIntire ’21), reflecting on the still-useable items left behind by UVA students moving to and from different apartments at the spring semester’s end. “We knew there was a need in the community for the furniture and decided to do something about it.”
That need served as the impetus for Refurnished, a registered nonprofit founded by Baker and four other University students last year: Spencer Bozsik (McIntire ’21, M.S. in Data Science ’22), as well as Giovanni Cianciaruso (Engineering ’22), Alec Brewer (Engineering ’21), and David Brenman (Engineering and A&S ’21).
Baker’s fellow Comm School grad Bozsik says that Refurnished provides a sustainable service for discarded goods while helping those who can’t afford the basic furnishings that they need in their homes. “Our aim is to reallocate this perfectly good furniture to individuals and families who need it most in Charlottesville, which also prevents the furniture from ending up in a landfill.”
Managed by students since its launch in 2020, the nonprofit is not a UVA CIO, but regularly partners with UVA and Charlottesville community organizations such as UVA Sustainability and The Habitat Store.
Baker, who now works as an Associate Consultant at Bain & Company, says the most difficult part of getting Refurnished established was moving from the idea stage into a working project capable of making a positive impact. She found that another serious challenge came in the iterative process dictating how the group decided to approach and meet its goals.
“It was super easy to become really set on a specific idea. But with Refurnished, we needed to constantly iterate our ideas to make sure that we were best serving the community,” Baker says, admitting that while it was somewhat frustrating at times, that process fostered creativity and enhanced her entire educational experience.
Bozsik says that because their desire to get started coincided with the peak of the pandemic, they also faced a very real health issue.
“We knew we wouldn’t be able to move massive amounts of furniture prior to having a vaccine readily available, in order to keep the community and our team members safe. This made it difficult to initially gain traction in terms of securing funds for operations and bringing on volunteers with our indefinite timeline. Our team did a great job of dealing with these challenges and the general uncertainty by creating long-term plans and relationships with other community organizations, so we could be well-positioned when it was finally safer to move furniture in large quantities,” he says.
Growing the Group
Niketas Koussis (McIntire ’22), who learned about the nonprofit from Baker, was instantly drawn to be a part of its dual-purposed furniture poverty and sustainability mission—both of which held a personal significance for him.
“I come from a low-income background, and for many years in my life, I did not have a home. And when I did, we could not afford furniture,” Koussis says. “I see myself in many of the members of the Charlottesville community we help. I was interested in joining because I knew some of the other co-founders and knew this was a special opportunity to work with amazing people.”
Now serving as Head Volunteer Coordinator and part of Refurnished’s seven-person executive team, Koussis helps recruit other volunteers, along with Zach Dole (A&S ’22).
“We are hosting onboarding sessions for volunteers and acting as the communication bridge between our executive team and our volunteers. We are close to starting to take donations and match them with people again,” he says, noting that he and Dole work closely with Head of Outreach Morgan Chung (A&S ’23) to schedule furniture moves. “A new part of my role is understanding our volunteers’ unique skill sets and matching them with our leaders for them to be mentored with the goal of taking on a leadership position,” Koussis says.
The organization has not only connected student volunteers with mentors, the efforts of the nonprofit have also given Koussis a chance to meet many students he says he would never have known otherwise. But he insists that the most rewarding part of the work has been those moments of giving the furniture directly to those in need. He cites one particular moment that he has been sharing repeatedly with new volunteers.
“I did a move this summer, giving a mattress to a family; it was for their very young daughter. When we dropped it off, she was jumping up and down with excitement! I love that with every move, our volunteers can meet the people they are helping out and see how something as simple as a mattress can bring joy and relief to someone.”
Paying It Forward with Commerce
Structuring a nonprofit, bringing volunteers on board, and sorting out the logistics are part of a process that requires a great deal of coordination and fortitude. All three members of the Commerce School community we spoke to cite McIntire for empowering them with the frameworks for successfully approaching the undertaking.
“When problems pop up, I don’t feel like I’m handcuffed to view them from one perspective. McIntire gave me the chance to look at business problems through several different lenses,” says Bozsik.
Baker credits McIntire faculty, particularly those in the Strategy & Systems area of the Integrated Core, for stressing the importance of understanding an organization’s core values and value proposition, concepts she kept in mind while founding Refurnished. “As a team, we spent a huge portion of time devoted to creating our core values and drivers so that we had a true understanding of what we wanted our business to become. This really helped us when we encountered problems; we could always go back to those core values and build again from there.”
The collaborative nature of his McIntire courses continues to support Koussis. “In every class I have taken, I have worked on a group project. This has allowed me to gain soft skills that I apply with Refurnished. Furthermore, I have learned how to approach a project and the different methods and frameworks I use within Refurnished as well.”
While 2020 was understandably difficult, Koussis says the group was still able to accomplish a great deal during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the months ahead, he’s optimistic he’ll be able to build on those lessons that emerged during that challenging time. “I am excited to work with everyone in Refurnished and apply what we learned last year to what is looking to be a somewhat normal year.”
Bozsik would like to see Refurnished grow to the point where it can “retain hundreds of volunteers throughout the Charlottesville community,” while expanding to other university communities, where the idea could surely stand to assist other college town residents in need. “The most gratifying part of this whole experience, for me, is having the opportunity to see the joy on people’s faces when we bring furniture to their home. I hope that future UVA students can also have this same experience and continue to position the organization to more effectively accommodate the needs of the Charlottesville community in the future,” he says.