On a windy Saturday morning in Dane, Wisconsin, Felicia Diny and her mom are combing through items stored on the second floor of a home. Diny is looking for a blue lamp, one that’s just the right color, for a family of sisters she’s never met.
With a clipboard in hand, Diny checks off some other items the sisters will need for their new home – a couch, a bookshelf and an end table. And that’s just the start.
Diny and her family take a break from furniture hunting around 9 a.m. to feed breakfast to a crew of 14 volunteers.
This is a typical weekend for Diny. The work is part of a nonprofit organization she founded during the pandemic called Felicia’s Donation Closet, which furnishes homes for survivors of domestic abuse in Madison and surrounding areas. To date, Diny has furnished more than 50 apartments for more than 70 moms and 120 children.
She likes to know the family’s style and favorite colors before picking out furniture and decor: Modern? Bright? And from there, Diny puts her vision to work.
What started with a potential couch for sale turned into a full-scale operation. A couple years ago, Diny called a local shelter to see if they needed her couch and learned a mother just moved homes and could use the help.
“I saw she absolutely had nothing,” Diny said. “They just had mattresses on the floor.”
That encounter ignited a passion. She decided donating a couch was not enough and put out a feeler on social media asking for home goods. To her surprise, she received more than 100 comments. She rented a moving truck, picked up the donated furniture and delivered it to the mother.
Soon enough, more furniture donations rolled in. Demand soared. Diny’s Jeep was packed to the brim. She has a full-time job but she spent hours in her free time driving and delivering furniture to families. She also began partnering with Dane County organizations, including Centro Hispano and Sunshine Place.
And for Diny, the mission is personal.
“I’m a survivor myself. I just felt that I needed to do something, give back to the community,” she said. “Had I known that there were so many other resources out there, I probably wouldn’t have stayed so long in some of these really horrible relationships.”
Nonprofit helps ‘make home a sanctuary’
After breakfast, Diny and her crew of volunteers drive to a storage unit in Waunakee, Wisconsin. There, she directs the team as they move chairs, dressers and tables. It’s a speedy undertaking – the goal is to get all the furniture in a delivery truck by 11 a.m.
“I’m thinking the gray sectional because it’s so small and they have a big space,” Diny told the volunteers as she chose furniture for the family.
Diny said many of the women she works with have gone through hardships. Some are homeless. Others have been raped. And when they finally get a job or their own apartment and come back to an empty home, it only makes it that much harder to leave the abusive situation.
“That’s when you always start questioning, ‘Did I make the right decision? Should I go back?’ Usually, the abusers would keep finances for them. And that’s how they trap them,” Diny said.
For that reason, helping people during what is sometimes their most vulnerable moment is critical, Diny said.
“We are that missing aspect to make that home a sanctuary for them,” Diny said. “That way they know that they are making the right decisions, they are in the right steps, they are heading the right direction. They can just move forward and become the beautiful women that they are, that they deserve to be.”
One person helping with today’s furniture move is volunteer Kyle Von Ruden.
The 33-year-old said he works in homeless services and found Felicia’s Donation Closet after researching resources for families from low-income backgrounds. Plus, he worked as a professional mover in grad school.
“I know how needed this resource is,” said Von Ruden. “It’s just nice to be able to contribute to that and help out folks who are vulnerable and hoping to make a fresh start.”
“There’s nothing really sexy about this work,” Von Ruden continued. “It’s picking stuff up and putting it down. It’s hard – it’s something that not a lot of people really want to do or enjoy. But just being able to contribute in that way – it’s the little things like that that I know go a long way.”
‘I’m just blessed’: Family receives furniture
Diny and her team eventually arrive at a Sun Prairie, Wisconsin apartment and begin to unload furniture for sisters Jyeisha and Jessica Edwards, the family that Diny had never met.
The sisters had been on the waiting list for a new apartment for more than a year. After calling 2-1-1, Jessica Edwards says the nonprofit Sunshine Place introduced them to Felicia’s Donation Closet.
“There are so many emotions going on right now inside of me. I don’t know whether to cry, smile,” Jessica Edwards said. “I’m just blessed because a few years ago today I would have never thought we would have been here.”
In 2022, Felicia’s Donation Closet raised $28,000 dollars. That helped staff buy a moving truck. As of July 2023, they’ve raised $29,000. And Diny has big ambitions: she hopes to get a warehouse, another moving truck and expand operations.
As she looks to the future, Diny says the bigger the donation closet gets, the more families they can help.
“It really hits me is when we’re there and then we walk in, and we’re done with everything,” she said. “The moms get emotional. That’s usually when it gets me because then I’m like, ‘Oh my god, don’t cry. You’re…it’s gonna be good now.'”
MUSIC: “Our House” by Fareed Haque