Toni Buck helps those beginning a new life
Toni Buck of Eau Claire has always had an affinity for people in need, but two years ago God made her vision a little clearer. “I used to be on the board of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of La Crosse,” says Toni. “They hold a fundraiser every year for Sojourner House.”
The story shared at a fundraiser dinner by a chronically homeless person about her experience moving in to her own home made an impact on Toni. The woman expressed a new-found peace living off the streets. She no longer had to be afraid.
Starting up housekeeping is a challenge for homeless people. Furniture and household essentials are necessary for permanent housing and expensive to purchase. Sojourner House volunteers provide money for the necessities needed in a new house, but they needed help.
“When they have nothing, anything would help,” Toni says. “I listened to that story and it touched my heart.”
On the drive home from the dinner, Toni told her husband, Mike, something needed to be done. It didn’t seem an impossible task. From personal experience, the Bucks had given away home items they didn’t need. “Think of all the furniture we have donated to people because we no longer want it,” Toni said to Mike.
When they have nothing, anything would help,” Toni says. “I listened to that story and it touched my heart.”
The first step for Toni after Mike offered his support was to figure out how she could help. She talked to Nadine at Catholic Charities in Eau Claire. Working with Catholic Charities to provide a means for people to donate household items was something the organization would welcome.
Toni needed to be sure God was calling her to this ministry. “I wanted to pray about it to see if it was God’s will for me to do this,” she says. “I thought furniture, I could find by word of mouth. Household items were a little different.”
The next step for Toni was to talk to Father Derek Sakowski at her parish, St. Mary in Altoona, to see if the parish could be a drop-off place for items. He said yes, and suggested she talk to the parish council for more feedback.
“The parish council was very excited and gave me some ideas to market the ministry,” says Toni.
In January 2017, Toni was ready to begin, and even had a name for the ministry – Helping Hearts Fresh Starts. “After months it felt like God’s hand was in it,” she says. “Everything came together.”
She spoke to her parish family one Sunday about the ministry, asking for furniture and household donations. She brought a plastic tote for donated items, which quickly overflowed. “It was just unbelievable the amount of donations that came in,” Toni says.
A storage unit was rented to hold the furniture donations. “I had about 20 totes in my basement with all the household items,” says Toni. “The storage unit filled up so quickly.”
A plan to disperse the donations was made with the help of Nadine at Catholic Charities. “In the beginning it moved really slowly,” Toni says.
Despite the slow start and her concerns, Toni began to create a routine and see results. “We tried to keep it very discreet,” she says. “Every weekend it felt like we were moving someone in or picking up furniture. I was having to turn away quite a bit of furniture for lack of room.
Following the suggestion of Father Sakowski, Toni gave a presentation for a social ministry fair at Regis Catholic High School. Her presentation helped get the word out about Helping Hearts Fresh Starts and, as a result, she got more help and donations.
“I wanted to pray about it to see if it was God’s will for me to do this.”
Toni’s vision saw the organization helping people in her parish and in the local community. “It was started because of Sojourner House, but all along I didn’t want it to just benefit Catholic Charities,” says Toni.
There are now two storage units made possible by a social ministries grant from the Diocese of La Crosse. Clients come to the storage units and shop like they would at a furniture store.
The biggest struggle for Toni was transporting donated items to the storage unit and delivering the items selected by her clients. That changed when she and her husband replaced his company car with a pickup truck.
“If a client has a vehicle and can get to the storage unit, good,” says Toni. “Otherwise, my husband and I will pick them up and take them to the storage unit.”
In the beginning, she had to guess what people wanted. Letting them see what is available and matches their needs made the process much easier. If Toni doesn’t have what they are looking for, people check back as the inventory changes regularly.
“I know they are getting exactly what they need or want,” Toni says. “I have really felt the hand of God in this ministry. Everyone we have helped has been so appreciative. They just touch our hearts and fill us with such joy.”
Discretion is very important to Toni. “We try to keep everything really private. I don’t hold on to phone numbers or names,” she says.
There have been many special people Toni has met through the ministry. She remembers how helping one client also helped the client’s son. “The client was so overjoyed. Her son was going to the university in Eau Claire. He got a scholarship to Madison but didn’t want to go and leave his mother without a place to live,” says Toni. “He didn’t have to worry about his mother living on the streets. He could go off to college without feeling like he was abandoning his mother in her time of need.”
Toni’s Faith in God guided her to a ministry caring for those in need and she is grateful to Him. “I try to always listen to those nudges from God. I never went to the dinner that night thinking I would do anything like this,” Toni says. “The biggest thing is being open. He’s going to give us those silent nudges. The graces He pours out on us for doing His will are beautiful. I never thought of it that way. All I thought was helping to provide things for some people.”
By Mary Kay McPartlin
Photography by Michael Lieurance
Helping Hearts Fresh Starts provides like new or new furniture and household items to homeless individuals and families who have moved into permanent housing.
The organization is only able to pick up local donations of furniture and household items. Helping Hearts Fresh Starts will accept monetary donations or gift cards to purchase household items for clients.
For more information, email [email protected].