Bucks woman turns castoff furniture into treasures for needy

Beth Baker displays some of the lamps that have been contributed to her Bucks County nonprofit, Deserving Decor. "People have good intentions when they donate things," she said. "But I'm very picky about what I take."
Beth Baker displays some of the lamps that have been contributed to her Bucks County nonprofit, Deserving Decor. "People have good intentions when they donate things," she said. "But I'm very picky about what I take." (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 13, 2012

In the few years when she had her own interior-design business, Beth Baker redid dozens of swank Bucks County homes, and, in the process, saw truckloads of castoff furniture consigned to dumps and thrift shops.

She loved the decorating, hated the discarding.

Surely, she thought, there were struggling families whose lives could be made more comfortable, and their spirits buoyed, by a gently used sofa or dining table, a like-new lamp, or a chest of drawers.

Baker resolved to find those families.

Today, she heads a novel nonprofit, Deserving Decor, that helps some of Bucks' neediest residents - those emerging from homeless and domestic-abuse shelters and moving into short-term housing - by cleaning and decorating their new apartments.

In the last two years, Baker's small, all-volunteer group has completed more than 60 makeovers free of charge. She has done bedrooms in princess and Winnie the Pooh themes for young girls, and splashed those for boys with primary colors. She has picked out the perfect picture, the prettiest bedspread, the nicest throw pillows for the children's mothers.

"We try to do our best to make it as homey" as possible, Baker, 55, said.

With no budget, she nonetheless has amassed a trove of furniture, lamps, pictures, mirrors, bedding, and other household goods - all donated through word of mouth.

She keeps it in four storage units, likewise donated. That is where she goes when a call comes from the Bucks County Housing Group, a nonprofit that provides transitional apartments for low-income residents.

Baker concentrates her efforts in Doylestown, Bensalem, and Penndel. As soon as an apartment is vacated, she and several volunteers not only thoroughly clean it, but learn as much as they can about the incoming tenant.

Almost always, Baker said, it's a single woman with children emerging from a crisis situation. Some are just coming out of A Woman's Place, the county shelter for domestic-abuse victims.

"They literally have nothing," she said. "Especially in a domestic-violence situation, they have to get out in a hurry. They just have their clothing and maybe a few toys for the kids."

Others have lost their houses to foreclosure, she said, recalling a woman whose young daughter had cancer and who, with mounting medical bills, had to give up her home.

Baker "shops" for them at her storage units and loads up her pickup truck "like the Beverly Hillbillies."

"It all somehow comes together," she said.

She transforms a "utilitarian" unit into a warm, welcoming home, said Melissa Mantz, the housing group's development officer. "She is very passionate."

Mantz said she knew of no program like Deserving Decor anywhere in the region. An organization in Michigan decorates shelters for women and children, but Baker said she believed her organization was the only one of its kind in the Philadelphia area.

Baker's own life took a 180-degree turn about a decade ago.

She was a computer consultant at the time of the 9/11 attacks. That day changed her mind about what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.

She took an interior-design course, then went to work in a Doylestown home-decor store. In 2006, she started her own business. And in 2009, she closed it, a year after starting Deserving Decor.

Baker was able to embrace volunteerism, she said, only because of the support of her longtime partner. He is a vice president at Dow Jones, her former employer.

She now finds herself with too much of a good thing - a mountain of furniture and not enough room to store it. She hopes someone will allow her to use, free of charge, a large warehouse in Bucks County where she can consolidate the donated goods into a furniture bank. She would also like a workshop for refinishing because, she said, "I am really, really into recycling. I don't want things going into landfills."

For now, she is closing the door to donations of large pieces of furniture.

"People have good intentions when they donate things," Baker said in an interview at her home in Plumstead Township. "But I'm very picky about what I take."

And it shows.

When Alaiyah Wood, 18, walked into her freshly decorated apartment in Bensalem in January, she was on her own for the first time.

She and her 22-month-old daughter had been living with her grandmother in Bristol before she learned she could get a transitional apartment through the Bucks County Housing Group.

The apartment was sparkling clean and decorated with lots of floral prints and big pillows. The toddler bed for her little girl had a brown blanket with pink flowers. There was "everything that I needed" to get started in a new place, Wood said. "I was finally home."

Her daughter, too, is happy. "She finally has somewhere that she's settled," Wood said, "where she can play . . . and doesn't have to keep moving from place to place. . . . We have peace."

Contact staff writer Emilie Lounsberry at elounsberry@phillynews.com.

For more information, visit Baker's website at http://deservingdecor.org.

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