Ren Fernando never meant to start a furniture charity. She and her co-founder Ben originally launched a running club that also aimed to do social good.
But when the running group visited a domestic violence refuge, they were struck by the immense difficulties faced by women and children escaping violence – and they were determined to help.
The pair were shocked to discover that even when families are allocated housing, they often don’t have furniture to fill it. So they came up with an innovative solution: Relove, a charity that connects businesses seeking to offload out-of-date, excess or pre-loved furniture, whiteware and homeware with people who need it the most.
Since then, Relove has helped 1600 families get back on their feet by furnishing their homes with sofas, tables, fridges… even kids’ toys. The charity operates from a huge warehouse in Sydney, which is filled with donated furniture that would otherwise be going to landfill, and where people can walk through, selecting the pieces they would like to furnish their houses.
Here, Ren explains the moments that changed everything.
Tell us about the moment that changed everything.
There were two, really. Run For Good started after a trip overseas to Nepal with my child who was then in Year Six. It was an incredible program but I came back thinking, ‘Why are we putting all this effort into doing good in other countries? Why aren’t we doing enough here?’
So, Ben [who I had met through non-profit CanToo] came up with the idea of a social good running club. We focused on doing projects relating to women and domestic violence, homelessness, mental health, First Nations and people seeking asylum.
We had one project that took us out to visit a refuge, and Ben and I were quite profoundly affected. The refuge was full, and we realised that when women did move out of the refuge, there was very little to help set them up with furniture.
Why are we putting all this effort into doing good in other countries? Why aren’t we doing enough here?
So, we borrowed a bit of warehouse space from [construction company] Built, who happened to have clear space because of Covid and we asked our friends and family to bring in furniture and stuff they didn’t need. We called it the ‘Heart and Home’ project and aimed to help five women coming out of the refuge set up their home. In those first few months, we ended up moving 50 families.
I remember saying to Ben, ‘We’re not going to be ‘the furniture people’. But here we are. Who knew?
What do you wish people understood about homelessness and starting afresh?
People are shocked to learn that when people get housing, there’s nothing in it. There’s a belief that government payments come through to help you set up your home. And there are some payments available but they’re not straightforward – for example, only about $1500 of the domestic violence payment can be used on household goods and only at certain places like Kmart. That $1500 doesn’t go far when you’re trying to set up an entire house.
But the other really big thing I wish people understood is that every single one of us is so close to that moment of homelessness. We had a guy referred to us who used to be a banker and he lost $10m in a trade. We’ve had very wealthy families referred.
Tell us one moment that makes your work worthwhile
You only need to see women or babies sleeping on the floor to drive you to do this work… and we’ve seen that more times that I could count.
I’ll tell you a story about a particular client. She was the primary earner, working 60 hours a week, with a four year old, and she’d come from a different state to escape a violent partner. She spent a few days sleeping in her car and then got into a refuge, which found her a home and then referred her to us.
You only need to see women or babies sleeping on the floor to drive you to do this work.
She had nothing. She came in and chose her furniture and in between the time she came in in the morning and her daughter coming back from daycare that day, we made sure her entire home was set up.
She filmed her daughter coming home from daycare and sent it to us. In the film, you can hear her saying, ‘Look, we’ve got a table, we’ve got a chair, we can eat dinner here tonight… and here is your own room.’
We’re still in touch and she’s getting back on her feet, but imagine the journey of having the bravery to leave – to leave the state – and come to a place where you know no one, have no job and have to rebuild again.
Did you ever imagine you’d be running a charity?
No. I’m a trained architect and an artist and Ben’s an investment banker.
What do you do when not running Relove?
There hasn’t been anything else outside of Relove for a while! It’s been all-consuming. We still have our run club, and I have started spending time drawing again, which is really great for me.
What’s your worst habit?
That I don’t stop. I find it very hard to say no, and I think that I have a never-ending well of energy.
Finish this sentence: nothing feels better than….
Making other people happy.
(And if you know someone doing something extraordinary, who we should feature in PRIMER, please get in touch: email@example.com)
Find out more about volunteering with Relove or donating furniture or new/secondhand goods, here.