When Tonya Walker was 9, she read the verse James 1:27 in the Bible: look after the orphans and widows in their distress.
For years, the verse’s challenge frustrated her.
“I couldn’t figure out how to do that at my age,” Walker said.
Walker’s frustration subsided as she raised three children with her husband, John, in Forsyth County. But the children grew, and as they did, her aching did too.
Walker was certain that she was meant to live up to James 1:27. For 10 years, she prayed to understand how.
Then Walker noticed more and more of her family, friends and neighbors taking in children into their home. Her sister with four kids who took in two nephews. Her cousin in Jefferson who took in a great-niece and great-nephew.
They had good intentions, but their homes weren’t ready to support the newcomers who almost always had few possessions.
“It was a financial burden to purchase them a bed and a dresser,” Walker said.
That’s when the dreams started in July.
“I started having the same dream over and over every night,” Walker said. “I couldn’t get over it. It was consuming me.
“It was this furniture ministry.”
Walker said this while sitting at the front desk of her new thrift store, Hope by Design, at 250 Atlanta Highway, Suite 200, near downtown Cumming. The corners of the store were filled with donated armoires and china cabinets, dining room table sets and plush sofas, intricate lamps and oil paintings, mirrors and candlesticks.
“This isn’t a normal thrift store,” Walker said, but Hope byDesign isn’t a normal undertaking: It is a store meant to support Walker’s much larger vision for building a furniture bank to serve those in need across a nine-county area in North Georgia.
Hope by Design’s real infrastructure are 10-by-40 storage units in Buford, Canton, Cumming and Johns Creek, where Walker stores the furniture and décor that she has collected and furnishes the new dwellings of those coming out of homelessness, domestic violence, addiction and other dire circumstances.
Hope by Design officially became a nonprofit organization this past October, and Walker quickly built up an inventory of furniture by scouring ads on Facebook Marketplace. She identified items that could fit into a small apartment and asked the seller to consider donating them instead.
“I had a lot of people respond and said, ‘Yes … and by the way, I have some other things I want to give you,” Walker said.
Walker and John pick up the furniture themselves in a U-Haul truck and bring it the closest storage unit. About 90% goes out to the community. The other 10% goes up for sale in the Hope by Design store to help offset the cost of the storage units and U-Haul trucks.
“It’s very expensive to move furniture around town,” Walker said.
Hope by Design also furnishes families with bedding, towels, shower curtains, rugs, lamps and wall art “so it feels like home,” Walker said.
Walker and her husband do all the heavy lifting for that, too. All the dishes and silverware they provide to families goes through the Walkers’ dishwasher. They wash, dry, fold, sort, and bag all the bedding and linens at their home.
“It is quite a big job,” Walker said.
Walker relies on partner organizations in the North Georgia territory to find and vet the families they help. They’ve partnered with emergency shelters, churches and safe houses for victims of sex trafficking. They recently formed a partnership with Family Promise in White County. They’ve also helped The Connection, an addiction recovery support center in Cumming.
Every family is unique. The mother of four who had been sleeping on a mattress pulled out of a dumpster received a bunk bed with an extra trundle underneath. The boy and girl living in a one-bedroom apartment with their parents got a twin trundle daybed so they could sleep in separate rooms, as ordered by DFACS.
“We have to think through what’s best for the family,” Walker said.
By Christmas, the plan was working. Donations were steadily coming in. Walker found more and more organizations to partner with. The weekend before the holiday, Walker moved two families into new apartments.
Then the plan started to expand.
All Around The House Fine Consignment, a boutique on Atlanta Highway, was downsizing. The owner, a friend, asked if Walker wanted to take over the space. She moved in Feb. 1.
Then Walker had a conversation with Megan Anderson, executive director of The Furniture Bank of Metro Atlanta. The organization was struggling to serve families outside their 25-mile radius on the south side of Atlanta. Someone needed to start a furniture bank on the north side, she said.
“As soon as she said that, I was like, ‘Yes,’” Walker said. “That was my original vision. That’s what I needed to hear.”
To do that, Walker needs a warehouse. She wants to ditch the
storage units and create a central location where families can shop for
furniture with volunteers that can help them find the right items for their living
It’s a big idea, and Walker knows she can’t do it alone. She’s hoping to find more volunteers to help refurbish the donated furniture, make deliveries, man the thrift store, manage social media, facilitate outreach programs and participate in special events. Their own box truck would eliminate the costly U-Hauls. She’s hoping others provide financial support. She started a fundraising program where individuals or groups can sponsor a family for about $500, which covers the cost of transportation and the storage units.
Walker doesn’t understand some parts of this path she’s on. She’s 50 now, and barely 5-foot-1. Some weekends, the work is demanding. The long drives. The hefty furniture.
“Why furniture?” Walker said. “I don’t know. God’s got a sense of humor.”
But Walker understands how the work makes her feel: peaceful, useful.
“I know the furniture that we’re picking up is going to serve God’s people,” Walker said. “It’s going to help a family.”