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Omaha Magazine

The Furniture Project: Ensuring Kids are Well-Rested

Nov 15, 2021 10:05AM ● By Kara Schweiss
drew gerken in front of moving van with rainbow polka dots

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

Drew Gerken has responded to thousands of calls for help in his years with the Omaha Fire Department, but one family’s situation in 2013 made him pause. 

“This particular call was different. It was two sisters [who had] three kids, and they had nothing. They moved into this apartment with nothing and no way to get anything,” said this firefighter who works at least 40 hours per week. “I asked the little boy where they slept, and he said they opened up their suitcases and slept on their clothes on the floor and covered up with some of them.”

Gerken and his colleagues were inspired to help. 

“We went back to the fire station and put out a call on social media, and within 24 hours we had secured everything we needed for this family,” he said. “And more.” 

Gerken wanted that “and more” to go to good use. He began sending messages and making calls to match the extra items to people who needed them. He discovered more people who needed furniture, and found more furniture.

As he began to help bring families together around dinner tables and onto couches, he realized one piece of furniture is particularly needed—beds. Gerken estimates hundreds of local children go to sleep, uncomfortably, on the floor every night. 

“We expect them to go to school, and pay attention, and get along with their friends, and get their homework done,” he said. Without a good night’s sleep, “That is really a challenge.” 

It’s a sentiment echoed by April Anderson-Bell, a social worker at Westside 66 who has worked with Gerken by supplying him with names of those in need. “My job is to help kids be successful in school and eliminate any barriers in helping kids being able to learn,”she said. “If these kids don’t have a bed to sleep in…or other basic needs met, we can’t expect them to be successful at school.”

She’s also one link in the chain known as The Furniture Project, the self-evident moniker of the organization Gerken formalized in 2019 after delivering furniture to people in need for about six years.

Another link is Jenni Riffel, Omaha chapter co-president of Sleep in Heavenly Peace, an organization that builds twin-sized beds, along with supplying mattresses and bedding. 

“The first time we actually met Drew I was on a delivery and we were delivering beds, and he happened to be delivering furniture to the same family,” Riffel said. She was impressed with his one-man desire to help. The organizations have continued their partnership, and, she said, “Anytime we are in the home delivering a bed, and we see more need, we get them into contact with Drew.”

While Riffel and her crew supply twin-sized beds, Gerken can supply people with cribs, larger beds, and other home goods.

Without a mattress, however, a bed is just a box. The affable Gerken soon made another connection to help turn the boxes into beds.

“He and I met about three years ago. He was volunteering his time to help a family member repair a boat dock. One of the other members of that family is a friend of mine,” said Mike Moore, owner of Comfortmade Mattress Factory. “We got to talking, and he found out [I] have a small family-owned mattress store.”

Moore realized that Gerken had a need he could fulfill with his business, and Moore was happy to do so.

“You can’t talk to him for more than a couple of minutes without realizing he is just a good person,” Moore said. “He’s as humble as they come. But he’s got a work ethic and just has a passion for doing anything he can do.”

The final link in this sequence of charity is that finishing touch—handmade quilts by a group of ladies around Omaha who also believe that getting a good night’s sleep, in an actual bed, is vital to one’s health. They so believe in this idea, and the good work that is being done by Gerken, that they spend hours piecing together colorful bedding for people in need.

Gerken’s hard work and humility are so inspiring that in July 2020, he was presented the Firefighter Hero Award from the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. Five months prior, in December 2019, Gerken was interviewed for a web series called “Returning the Favor” with Mike Rowe, which featured community do-gooders across the U.S. and had more than a million followers on Facebook. His friends at Sleep in Heavenly Peace came to assist with the surprise episode by building 100 beds to be distributed.

Still, Gerken doesn’t think he’s done much.

“Ultimately, we’re all in this together,” he said. “If we have people who are suffering, I think it’s our duty to help them.” 

And when he and his friends all come together, Anderson-Bell said, community members in need—whether refugees; formerly homeless families; or those otherwise unable to purchase dining tables, couches, or beds—have also found a new friend in Gerken.

“The families, they love him, he makes them feel so comfortable,” she said. “I’ve seen, personally, the smile, the look on these kids’ faces that have never had a brand-new bed. Him being able to bring that joy to those kids is wonderful.” 

Visit thefurnitureproject.org for more information.

This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.