- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 15, 2017

GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) - Sarah Witbrod’s furniture has saved lives.

It may sound like hyperbole, but it’s true.

Witbrod has five children with her husband, Tony. Two are biological and three adopted. Their first daughter was adopted from Guatemala. The other two adopted children - through near tragedy, loss, small successes and failures - came from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In the mid-2000s, children under the age of 5 had an 80 percent mortality rate in the DOC, Witbrod said. After seeing firsthand the struggles that children face in that region of Africa, she knew she had to do something, reported the Gillette News Record (https://bit.ly/2l8DVSu).

“I did some real soul searching,” she said. “I knew I had to help in some way.”

With the help of a government official in Congo, Witbrod started a charity organization and an orphanage there that has housed anywhere from 45 to 60 children at a time for the last five years.

In the last 3½ years, while raising a family in Cheyenne, a skill she learned from her parents has helped her raise more than $10,000 for her orphanage to keep children in Congo safe, healthy and alive.

How did she do it? By refurbishing and selling antique furniture.

“It’s finding value in something that people before you found no value in,” Witbrod said.

A lifelong passion

Jim and Nancy Nordeen have been married for nearly 40 years.

When they moved to Gillette during an economic boom, they had a hard time finding a place to live, so they decided to build a house of their own.

While traveling for their honeymoon, they stumbled upon a beautiful, cherry wood dresser in a furniture shop near Yellowstone National Park. The shop owner recognized how enamored the newlyweds were with the piece and he threw in extra furniture out of the kindness of his heart.

To this day, they still have the dresser and set of chairs, one of the only pieces in their home that are originals.

“Even from the beginning, we’ve always had a passion for older, quality furniture,” Nancy said.

The Nordeens have made it a family tradition to repurpose, restore and refurbish vintage furniture. They have stuffed houses, apartments and college dorm rooms for two generations with vintage furniture that has come back to life.

They were both educators for more than three decades. Nancy taught elementary art in Gillette for 37 years, and Jim taught a mixture of elementary grades while mixing in a gifted program and reading recovery.

“We’ve been collecting for as long as I can remember,” she said. “It’s so much fun. We try and go after old things that need some work rather than vintage pieces that are fine the way they are.”

But those are great to stumble on as well, Nordeen admitted. There a few items in their house that they’ve never touched.

“We do most of our work with wood,” she said. “Whether that be sanding, stripping or painting, woodwork is what we do the most of. It’s amazing what a good paint job can do to the value of an old piece of furniture.”

One piece that was particularly valuable after the Nordeens got their hands dirty with it was an old dining room table “chock full of coal dust” that they found for pennies at a local garage sale.

After it was refinished, someone bought it for $600.

The family looks everywhere for furniture. They all agree that Gillette is a great place to scrounge up old pieces to restore. Every year, they seem to accumulate more and more.

“You can find good stuff everywhere around here,” Nancy said. “Yard sales, auctions, secondhand stores - you can always find something.”

There’s something special about an older piece of furniture. There’s a richness to it, a boldness that seems lost in today’s IKEA-inspired era of design and construct.

“An old piece of furniture has a history,” Nancy said. “And they’re always much more solid and sturdier.”

“They don’t make them the same these days,” Jim said. “The quality has changed. That’s another reason why we love doing it so much, because we’re after the quality and craftsmanship.”

“We like to think of ourselves as part of the recycling society,” Nancy added. “We’re giving these pieces new life. We get excited about the idea of trying to find a solution for life.”

The society Nancy spoke about includes a large number of other families and Gillette residents who take up space at Cam-plex every year for weeks at a time and dedicate their free time to restoring old furniture.

“We all adore each other and help each other out with the work and with ideas,” Nancy said. “It’s such a fun thing to do in the winter, especially when we have such a bad one like we’re having this year.”

Jim shook his head and smiled when Nancy said that they rarely sell any of their restored furniture. What usually happens is pieces in their home are switched and swapped around so much that there is barely any room for anything else.

“I think the only thing in our home that wasn’t restored are the chairs,” Nancy said. “Does that sound right, Jim?”

“Yeah, that’s about right,” he said. “Just the chairs. And we’ve got some more in the garage that are up next.”

One of Jim’s favorite pieces is a record player stand that they recently restored. In the pipeline is an old ice box.

“It’s really a neat thing to do,” Nancy said. “It’s recycling things, but making them more beautiful and useful. We love doing it. Anyone would after time.”

The tight-knit community is something the Nordeens cherish. They both love Gillette. They tried to leave a long time ago, went south for short stint in Colorado and came back soon after.

They’ve now been here for 40 years.

A family affair

Both of Jim and Nancy’s daughters, Sara and Katie, haven grown up with a passion for furniture restoration as well.

Katie, the younger one, said she can remember refurbishing dining room chairs when she was in grade school. It didn’t take her long to love it, either.

“I’ve always loved doing it from the beginning,” she said. “I can remember helping my parents at Cam-plex at an early age and start finding my own pieces in high school. It’s always been a family affair.”

She’s learned a lot from her parents. The hobby that stuck started as learning the technique and shadowing a number of projects.

That eventually turned into gathering, buying and working on projects on her own that would later become staples in her own little collection.

“It’s really neat to see what a piece can become,” she said. “Turning an old, ugly piece of furniture into something beautiful is really special.”

Katie is a teacher’s aide at John Paul II Catholic school and is taking classes toward a degree in early education.

She lives with her parents, but is looking forward to moving into her own apartment so she can fill her own place with all the vintage furniture she’s collected and restored over the years.

Witbrod recalls her first memories refurbishing.

“I remember Katie would bring a sleeping bag and take naps when she needed a break,” she said. “It goes way back.”

Witbrod, like her sister, enjoys the part of the process where they can take something that someone else might see as garbage and turn it into “a beautiful, useful piece of furniture.”

“It’s one of the best forms of recycling,” she said. “It’s a great skill to have. When something breaks in the house, it’s nice to know I can fix it.”

While Katie does most of her refinishing for her own use, Sarah has made her craft into an international cause for children in Africa.

“We have a three-car garage full of furniture,” Witbrod said. “We park our cars in the driveway. It’s serious business.”

With the skills she was taught by her parents more than 20 years ago, Witbrod has been collecting, refurbishing and selling pieces at antique shows in Colorado.

For the last show she sold at, she was nearly 9 months pregnant and was able to fill a four-horse trailer, two minivans and Tony’s truck with furniture.

“All proceeds go to the orphanage that I helped start,” she said. “It’s a cause that is obviously close to our hearts.”

Just then, she reflected on a senior project she did in high school. While other students did things like volunteer at the Soup Kitchen and write a paper, she refurbished an old desk that was destined for the dump and painted the top with an elegant mosaic print.

It was about giving something a second chance, a second life.

On her foundation’s Facebook page, titled Wren’s Song, Witbrod wrote a message connecting the dots between how her family has been put together and how she helps children in Africa.

“Some people may not see the correlation, but to me it’s always been there,” she wrote. “The lost, broken, discarded, gathered together and given new life.”

With the quote were two photos side by side, one of a young African girl named Cheron, licking her finger with a plate of food in front of her, the other a display of refurbished baskets, tables and desks.

“The photo on the right is why I do what I do,” she wrote. “The photo on the left is how I accomplish it.”


Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, https://www.gillettenewsrecord.com

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