The Lighthouse Furniture Project
In recent weeks we have become increasingly familiar with the real impact of the Covid-19 crisis on private businesses, charities and on social enterprises. As workers are being be laid-off and finances threatened, no one can be certain how long this period will last and whether those businesses and charities will actually survive. What is clear is that even some essential services cannot be delivered – or at least not in the way they have been provided up to now.
One example of a social enterprise having to adapt quickly to this new situation is the Lighthouse Furniture Project, a charity and social enterprise, operating in and around a number of towns in south Essex.
The Lighthouse Project began in 1994 after a group of people in Kings Church in Brentwood went to their local council offering to serve their local community. They were invited to take on the council’s initiative to pass reusable furniture to those in need, and with some garages and a trailer they started distributing furniture at weekends. The work grew such that in 2004 the Lighthouse Furniture Project was born as a charity and social enterprise business. Their website gives more information on the scope of their work.
Saving approximately 450 tonnes of unwanted furniture and electrical equipment per year from ending up in landfill, the project sells its goods from a warehouse on an industrial estate. Lighthouse operates a two-tier pricing system on many items, meaning those on certain means-tested benefits pay less than the general public. The size of the discount varies according to how essential the item is. With an annual turnover of over £600,000, last year £250,000 of sales were discounted. In addition, £22,000 worth of goods were given away free of charge.
Lighthouse has 21 paid staff and 45 volunteers. It is known in the area not only as a place that people come to for help, but also a place that through its values encourages and builds people up, and – having connections with Job Centre Plus – has helped many volunteers get back into the world of work. In addition, it has helped to start up and develop re-use projects in Rayleigh, Epping Forest and Ilford all of which now run as independent charities to meet the need in their communities.
The current CEO, Pete Everett, has been in post for just over a year. He speaks enthusiastically of his work and the daily opportunities to live out his faith serving those in poverty. “If we are to help those in need, then we need to know who they are and how together with the church and other organisations, we can support them holistically.” In this respect Lighthouse works with more than 70 agencies and services including local councils, charities, social care, schools and health professionals. Links with local churches are critical and Pete attends the meetings of local leaders. He also sees an opportunity to encourage churches to have greater contact with those in need by working together.
Pete is convinced that prayer is key to all the work. Last summer a high demand for fridges was identified by staff. Twenty minutes after the team meeting on the matter and prayer for the need, Lighthouse received a phone call offering 145 almost new fridges at £2 each. Lighthouse then shared this blessing by passing on some to the other reuse centres locally. When two of the delivery vans were stolen recently, immediately a plea for prayer went out on Facebook. The vans were returned 16 hours later, more than 20 police officers having been involved in their retrieval. Pete confirms, “God was certainly in it”; and while the vans were damaged all the contents were safe.
COVID-19 – All Change
Pete now finds himself in the middle of a whirlwind of changes. When this current crisis began, probably all businesses and charities hoped that, while there might be some impact on their operations, some form of business would continue. On 23 March that situation changed significantly after the Prime Minister’s speech to the nation. Many areas of the economy simply shut down overnight.
Lighthouse has found itself putting 86% of staff on paid furlough, while at the same time adjusting its own operation. The main warehouse is closed for direct sales, but new and unexpected needs have arisen which the project sees itself able to meet for the benefit of the wider community. Here are a few examples.
Until recently Lighthouse was supplying goods through Essex County Council’s Essential Living Fund, a scheme intended to help vulnerable people live as independently as possible. While this fund has now been frozen, a new initiative to move homeless people from the streets has opened another door for the Project to provide fridges to one local Borough Council, and beds and furniture for up to 50 housing units to the County Council.
Fridges are also being provided for the local community food hub, that is also benefitting from use of the Project’s 3.5 tonne delivery vans.
Having invested recently in ‘voice over the internet’ equipment to increase the Project’s own telephone capacity, those phones are now being loaned to other agencies and local churches to help their work in this crisis.
The key at this time of expanding need, is for the Lighthouse Project to examine the resources it has at its disposal and to see how they can be used to bless others.
The future is uncertain, and we are about to enter some lean years. The Lighthouse Project itself will have to address issues of longevity and finance, but for now it is not resting as it adapts and mobilises its resources to serve its wider communities directly or through supporting other agencies.
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