Donna Hunnewell surveys the 15,000-square-foot warehouse packed with donated mattresses, tables, chairs, bedding, lamps, strollers, shoes and just about any of the other basics a family might need, and she zeros in on the few items that are in short supply.
“There’s never enough pots and pans, and bed frames are like gold around here,” says Hunnewell, founder and executive director of The Wish Project, a Lowell-based nonprofit “goods bank” that funnels donated items to people in need throughout the Merrimack Valley. Many of the recipients are families left homeless due to life-altering events such as fires, illness or domestic violence.
Hunnewell’s guiding principle is simple: Only when people’s basic needs are met — safe living conditions, food, clothing, a bed — can they begin to move forward and out of poverty.
The seed that would eventually grow into The Wish Project was planted in 2000. After leaving a job as a corporate trainer to stay home and raise her two children, Hunnewell started volunteering with local anti-poverty groups. She saw a gap in the delivery of services, with no system in place for gathering and distributing basics such as furniture and clothing to needy families.
“Social workers are so overworked,” she says. “It’s no one’s job to get people the basic things they need.”
At first, she worked out of her minivan. Keeping in touch with a network of social workers via her cellphone, she would comb yard sales and thrift shops for cribs, car seats or whatever else was on their wish list and store the items at her home in Tyngsborough until they could be delivered. Operations expanded, and Hunnewell officially established The Wish Project as a nonprofit in 2005. To accommodate the growing donations, she began renting warehouse space at an industrial park on Foundry Street in Lowell.
Now, social service agencies pay The Wish Project an annual fee that supports an online ordering system. All recipients of Wish Project goods must be referred through a social worker, and social workers place orders for what their clients need.
“The work The Wish Project does is crucial. There is an incredible diversity of the things they can offer,” says Derek Mitchell, Lowell site director of the International Institute of New England, which helps refugees and recent immigrants settle into the community. Many refugee families arrive with just the clothing they are wearing. The Wish Project has helped some of the families with apartment furnishings, coats, boots and other items.
The Wish Project also provides such things as kits for mothers of newborns (diapers, wipes and formula to get them through the first couple of weeks after taking the baby home from the hospital), backpacks filled with supplies for children returning to school in the fall, and Christmas gifts for families. The organization now helps about 35,000 people a year, according to Hunnewell.
The work gets done by a paid staff of 10 with help from about 1,200 volunteers who collect, sort, organize and move donated items, and pitch in with other duties. Scout troops, school sports teams, sororities and fraternities, groups of friends and others spend hours every week at the warehouse helping out.
Over the years, more warehouse space has been added to handle the 500 tons of goods that are donated annually. The organization’s latest addition is the “Thermonator,” a converted trailer of an 18-wheeler equipped with a thermal exterminator that treats donated items such as mattresses with heat to kill such pests as bedbugs, roaches and spiders without the use of chemicals.
Looking ahead, Hunnewell sees continued growth for The Wish Project. She’d like more warehouse space, to own a building, and someday to open up Wish Project-type organizations in every major city.
“I love doing this,” she says. “It’s so rewarding.”
The Wish Project