Nowhere to sit, nowhere to sleep
Iryna Maskaliova and her husband, Artsiom Zhdanovich, both 29, stand Wednesday in their Mt. Lebanon bedroom, which is filled with furniture from Off the Floor Pittsburgh.
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Iryna Maskaliova and her husband arrived in Mt. Lebanon from Belarus last year with a green card, the promise of a job, a suitcase of clothes and a laptop computer. The couple, both 29, were eating and sleeping on the floor, using candles for light, when Off the Floor Pittsburgh learned about them.
Volunteers from a church carried a bed, chairs, tables, bedding, pots, pans and lamps to their sixth-floor apartment.
"When I saw the truck, I thought it was for 10 families. I couldn't believe it was all for us," Ms. Maskaliova said, sitting on one of the vintage recliners that was part of the mismatched but practical delivery.
"We felt that we finally had a home," she said.
That's the goal of Off the Floor Pittsburgh, founded in 2004 by Mary Jane McCarty, known as M.J. It delivers basic furniture and bedding to families that are eating or sleeping on the floor. Though her health prevents Dr. McCarty, 56, from doing much more than praying for the group she founded, she continues to advise the board that now runs it.
"This ministry has been the phoenix in my own personal life," she said.
Until a 1995 car crash, she was a psychiatric nurse with a doctorate in counseling and a thriving practice in bereavement therapy. Her injuries required 18 surgeries and left her too disabled to work.
When she realized that she would never be safe climbing stairs because her knees give way, she moved from her original Forest Hills house to an accessible apartment in Mt. Lebanon. There she became active in Mt. Lebanon United Presbyterian Church, a key connection that remained strong even after she moved back to an accessible house in her original Forest Hills neighborhood.
"Through all those 18 surgeries and the years that went by getting through them, my constant prayer was, 'God, just show me what I can do in the physical condition I'm in to serve you and help people,' " she said.
By summer 2004 she was driving to daily physical therapy, taking a short cut through a street of rundown row houses in Wilkinsburg. Each day she noticed two little girls sitting on the bare wood of a sagging porch. It disturbed her that they had no toys. She felt impelled to stop, but resisted.
"For two months, I had this conversation with God. I said, 'Excuse me, but this isn't a safe neighborhood. Can't you send a big, male Christian down the street instead of me?' I kept bringing that to God's attention. By his grace, he ignored me," she said.
Finally she stopped, unsure of what to say. When the young mother came to the door, Dr. McCarty stammered that she had often seen the girls without toys, and asked permission to buy them some.
Their mother burst into tears.
"She said, 'Toys? We don't have those. We don't have a table and chairs. We don't have beds. We don't have nothing.' "
Dr. McCarty was dumfounded.
"You don't have beds?" she said, not sure she had heard right.
The mother pointed down the block and told her that no one on the street had beds. Dr. McCarty promised that her church would provide furniture.
The Christ Care Group at her Mt. Lebanon church found beds, mattresses, tables, chairs and other things the family needed. While delivering those they met the neighbors, and found furniture for them also.
Off the Floor Pittsburgh was born from that effort. The church provides a free phone line and tax-exempt sponsorship. One part-time employee coordinates furniture pickups and deliveries. Beyond that, the work is done by 143 volunteers who handle everything from truck driving to grant writing. Most furniture is donated, but the organization raises money for storage lockers, rental trucks and the part-time salary.
In four years, Off the Floor has helped 262 families in 38 ZIP codes. Recipients must be pre-screened and referred by one of the 32 social service agencies with which Off the Floor cooperates. Off the Floor is able to serve about 100 families each year -- but the waiting list is 50 families long.
Dr. McCarty confesses to having harbored false assumptions about families living in poverty. She was amazed to find that 82 percent of recipient families have working parents. Minimum wage salaries, she realized, turn even used furniture into a luxury item.
Off the Floor has helped families who lost everything in a fire, and two who relocated here after Hurricane Katrina. The young Belarus couple is among several immigrant families they have assisted.
Ms. Maskaliova, who had long dreamed of living in the United States, was a marketing specialist, engaged to Artsiom Zhdanovich, who owned a small car lot, when she saw the notice for the U.S. green card lottery. She entered on a whim.
"I won," she said, still sounding disbelieving.
They married more quickly than planned so Mr. Zhdanovich could come with her. They had no family in the United States, but other Belarus immigrants they met online convinced them to come to Pittsburgh. Ms. Maskaliova, who spoke fluent English, lined up a job as a Sunoco cashier and Sunoco initially placed the couple in a furnished Mt. Lebanon apartment with several student employees.
But a shared apartment was difficult for the newlyweds. When they had saved a little money, they rented their own small apartment -- and moved in with nothing but their clothes and computer.
When an Off the Floor volunteer asked what they needed, Ms. Maskaliova said, she found it hard to speak. Belarus had no tradition of such assistance and "it was embarrassing to say what I need," she said.
After an awkward impasse, the volunteer said, "I understand that you need everything," she recounted.
Although Off the Floor has no continuing relationship with families after delivering furniture, Ms. Maskaliova made the effort to stay in touch and has offered to help the group in any way she can. She has been promoted to manager, and her husband, who is still learning English, is a house painter.
The furniture not only helped them, but gave peace of mind to their family in Belarus.
"Our parents couldn't help us, and they were really happy that we were in a country where people help when there is a need," Ms. Maskaliova said.
Off the Floor Pittsburgh is constantly looking for donations of gently used furniture and bedding.
"It's a great way for middle- and upper-class people to recycle furniture. We are able to give them a tax write-off," Dr. McCarty said.
The organization is Christian -- each recipient family is offered a Bible. But it draws support from a wide range of groups. The first agency to give a financial grant was the United Jewish Federation's Urban Affairs Foundation.
"This particular mission has universal appeal," Dr. McCarty said. "It seems to cut through all kinds of barriers."
The Christian emphasis is low-key, but important to the organizers.
"We believe it's really God's grace in their life that delivered them from sleeping on the floor. We want to give credit to our CEO [Jesus]. We don't want to appear like we're just a nice group of people. We are, but that's not what motivates us to do this," she said.
Receiving furniture is about more than comfort and hygiene, said Bob Jamison, president of Family Guidance Inc., one of the referring agencies, which provides Christian-oriented support and mentoring to at-risk families throughout the region.
"It makes them feel like they're normal. It makes them feel they have a home and that they're not just squatting someplace. There's no longer that feeling that we're going to move someplace else next month," he said.
He discovered Off the Floor Pittsburgh through a friend when he was trying to help a single mother in Garfield, whose five sons were sleeping on the floor. The mother had made heroic efforts to keep her sons out of gangs, and Mr. Jamison was so eager to help that he expedited delivery by renting his own truck and making the delivery with two of his friends.
"It was like Christmas. They were bouncing up and down. The neighbors came over to see and helped unload the mattress," he said.
Neaka Johnson, who is now studying to be a pharmacy technician, was the mother who received those beds. Her five boys -- who range in age from 11 to 16, had once had beds that became dangerously rickety and had to be thrown out, she said.
Her hope is that her sons will earn college scholarships, and she has enrolled them in programs to get extra help with school. Beds help them get the sleep they need to focus in school.
"I was crying when those beds came. It was a real blessing," she said. "The boys were so happy."
That's the goal, Dr. McCarty said.
"We're not just delivering furniture. We are delivering hope," she said.
For a list of referring agencies see www.offthefloorpittsburgh.org. To donate furniture, call 412- 531-6227, ext. 220.
First Published August 17, 2008 12:00 am