Randy Jackson, retired pastor of Frontline Ministries in Elmira, New York, remembers pulling up in front of a seven-year-old girl’s house with a bedroom suite loaded in the back of a truck: a bed frame and mattress, desk, chair and bookshelf – used but functional dorm furniture that had been donated by Cornell.
“This was a little girl who had nothing, who came to church in the same dirty dress every week, who was sleeping on the floor,” Jackson said. “When she saw the furniture, she said ‘Is this mine? Is this really mine?’ It made the whole crew cry. When I see the faces of these kids, my heart just leaps.”
The donation was part of efforts by Denise Hubbard, inventory coordinator for Student and Campus Life (SCL), to reduce waste from Cornell’s residential buildings and, whenever possible, provide for those in need. Since beginning her position at Cornell in 2018, she has coordinated the donation of 6,650 items, mostly to local nonprofits, and has arranged the repair of more than 2,400 items for reuse on campus, either rehoming them or storing them for future use.
“Anything I can rehome, I do try to rehome,” Hubbard said. “For me, it’s personal. We’re leaving this planet to our children – I have three children myself – and if something is structurally sound and still has life in it, I want to try to help people and keep that furniture out of the landfill.”
The donations have had lasting impact on the community. Cornell donated more than a hundred used bedroom suites as well as lounge furniture to Jackson and his wife’s nonprofit, Let Elmira Live, which served low-income and underprivileged youth in Chemung County until the Jacksons’ retirement in 2021. She arranged for the donation of oak dressers and tables to help furnish Second Wind Cottages, 18 cottages in Newfield, New York that provide temporary, transitional housing for homeless men. When residents find jobs and move into their own apartments, they can take all the furniture with them.
“That furniture will help them to set up independently, and they can keep it forever,” said Amy Bach, volunteer donation coordinator for Second Wind Cottages. “We don’t have the money to go out and buy furniture for the cottages every time somebody moves out – we’re totally dependent on the community – and our guys are just so grateful and really surprised that it was all donated. It’s kind of hard for them to believe that people in the community care so much about them. It means a lot that Cornell is willing to share what they have.”
Additional donations have been made to the nonprofits Ithaca Welcomes Refugees, the Ithaca ReUse Center, Thrifty Shopper (run by the Rescue Mission), Significant Elements, the Sunflower Housing Program for formerly incarcerated people, and the Glove House, which supports low-income families, among others. Hubbard has also worked with social services departments in multiple counties.
Hubbard will be honored with a 2022 President’s Award for Employee Excellence in the new category “Culture of Sustainability,” which recognizes employees who have contributed to creating a sustainable campus, community and culture.
Hubbard said the existing culture around sustainability at Cornell – from colleagues to students and faculty – has made her work possible. She also credited the support of her boss Nianne Vanfleet, assistant director of SCL facilities administration.
“I started bombarding her with questions, and she started investigating for me,” Hubbard said. “She’s been an incredible support to my position. I don’t think I would have done a quarter of what I’ve done without her by my side.”
Looking ahead, Hubbard plans to cast an even wider net. She’s connected with FEMA to donate items to flood victims in Kentucky and is even in talks with the International Reuse Network to send items to people in Ukraine.
Of all the donations she’s arranged, Hubbard said providing beds for children has been the most rewarding. “When you hear that you’re making that kind of a difference, it’s very elating,” she said. “This could be in a landfill, but instead it’s keeping a child or adolescent, a teenager off of the floor.”
Jackson said the good will and ingenuity of people like Hubbard gives his work added impact. “Having a nonprofit is not easy – we’re always on the edge,” he said. “Finding someone like Denise who has the heart to put this stuff to good use, and Cornell to give the go-ahead – people need to understand how valuable that is to the nonprofit and the community. For people like me, who are out there trying to keep kids going, it really helps us in huge ways to sustain and make kids’ lives a lot better.”