UPlace man on to new service project after 22 years of helping people furnish their homes

Like a lot of retirees, Jim Ofelt was looking for something to keep him busy when he left his residential appraiser job in 1991.

Instead of turning to gardening or wood working, he came up with a service called Home Start, which for more than two decades has been providing household items for free to people in need in the Tacoma area.

From the germ of an idea to its debut in 1992, Ofelt has literally been the driving force behind the operation, using his own van or truck to pick up and deliver furniture, small appliances and other household goods that could turn a bare dwelling space into a home for people who otherwise couldn’t afford to furnish a house or apartment.

But after 22 years of lugging sofas, lamps, dishes and microwave ovens, he’s decided to retire from Home Start. Unless someone else steps up to continue running the program, it will close its doors.

“I’m going to try something different,” the University Place man said. Ofelt, who turned 83 on Saturday, will work with his Tacoma church, First Lutheran, to help settle new immigrant families into the community.

That doesn’t surprise his son, Jeff.

“We grew up in Tacoma and he was constantly involved with the church, Exchange Club, Paint Tacoma Beautiful,” Jeff Ofelt recalled. “His whole life has been dedicated to charity.”

When Ofelt first took the idea for Home Start to the Tacoma Exchange Club, a local service club he belongs to, he asked only for a few hundred dollars.

“I told them what I wanted to do, and asked if they would fund it on a six-month trial basis,” Ofelt said.

But the idea took off. Soon, another former co-worker and Exchange Club member, Jan Peterson, retired and joined Ofelt at Home Start.

Donations started coming in, first from friends, then from a bigger pool of donors, some of whom became regular donors over the years.

Referrals for help came from churches and service agencies, including the Department of Social and Health Services and United Way.

“A lot of it was just word of mouth, people telling other people,” Ofelt said. He estimates he put in between 10 and 15 hours a week on Home Start over the years.

Home Start’s storehouse of donated items has changed locations several times over the years. Most recently, it has been located adjacent to a Tacoma organization called Shared Housing, which helps match people in need of an affordable place to live with individuals who have rooms in their homes to rent or share in exchange for help around the house. The organization also operates several affordable housing units.

“It’s been good for us and them,” Ofelt said. “They gave us low rent, and we helped their tenants when they moved in.”

Home Start has always subsisted on donations, and, for a time, income from selling some of its donated items in a store front provided by Ofelt’s son Jeff.

“We had that for quite a while,” Ofelt said. “We had regular customers who used to come in and see what was new.”

He also had repeat donors, including apartment building managers and a local retirement home that would call him whenever former residents left behind useable items.

“We made a lot of friends through the years, through the people who donated to us,” Ofelt said. “A number of our volunteers are people we have helped, who decided they wanted to help other people.”

Ofelt estimates that Home Start was able to help some 10,000 people over the years.

“I enjoy it,” Ofelt said of his life of service. “It’s the satisfaction of helping somebody.”