Making It Home

Making It Home

How Tenafly’s Cynthia Massarsky came to furnish new beginnings

Cynthia Massarsky
Cynthia Massarsky

Remember what it felt like when you moved into the place you now call home?

It was bare. It echoed. It was empty. It was full of possibilities, and of hope, but first it needed some stuff. It needed someplace where you could sit, someplace where you could eat, someplace where you could relax, someplace where you could sleep.

If you feel like you’re camping, it’s not home.

For most of us, that feeling of emptiness lasted just until the moving van with our old stuff, or the truck with the exciting new things we’d just bought, pulled up, and the guys on the truck unloaded tables and chairs, couches and beds and TVs and bookshelves and boxes and boxes of books.

But some people don’t have that.

There are public and nonprofit agencies in Bergen County, including Bergen County’s Housing, Health and Human Services Center and the county’s Division of Veteran Services, that provide housing for homeless people, victims of domestic abuse, veterans, and others who are down on their luck. That housing helps them immensely. But all the county can give them is four walls, topped by a ceiling and set on a plain floor. The rest is up to them, and it can be a depressing — if not actively too expensive and therefore impossible — task for them to furnish it.

That’s where Cynthia Massarsky of Tenafly, and her barely two-year-old organization, Making It Home, come in.

Ms. Massarsky saw a need, and her background positioned her to recognize it and figure out how to fill it. In doing so, she has made hundreds of lives significantly better.

It is, she says, a form of tikkun olam. Of repairing and healing the world.

Her background — decades at the intersection of the profit and nonprofit worlds, watching, learning, and taking from one sector, where tangible success is valued, to the other, where helping people is the core value but that isn’t free — led her logically to Making It Home. To providing physical objects — furniture — to help people lead better, happier, more secure, more productive lives.

Making It Home takes barren spaces and makes them places where people can live. And Cynthia Massarsky made Making It Home.

Cynthia Wilson grew up in Newton, Mass. “I was raised a Conservative Jew,” she said. “I belonged to Congregation Mishkan Tefila on Chestnut Hill, the temple that Leonard Bernstein and his family belonged to. The rabbi there, Israel Kazis, was not afraid of anything. His sermons were provocative. He took stands.”

She did not forget him. “I’m sure this relates to how I became who I am,” she said. “I was a little bit of a rebel. When people said ‘You can’t,’ I said ‘I can.’”

She majored in early childhood education at Simmons College in Boston; she also married and divorced early, and so, by the time she graduated, “I really needed a job,” she said. She became a secretary for the two groundbreaking women who ran Simmons management school — Simmons was a women’s college, and the management school “was one of few first business schools for women in the country,” she said — and “I started typing case studies that were written using the Harvard case study method,” she said. “I would type them, and get lost in them. They all sounded so wonderful. I saw one about Frances Howe, who ran all the childcare centers at Harvard.” She was intrigued, asked permission from her own deans to approach her — because being aggressive was one thing, but risking inappropriate cross-institution relations was entirely another — and was told to go right ahead.

Frances Hovey Howe “was a prim and proper Brahmin-type woman who lived on Beacon Hill and clearly was a woman of significant wealth,” Ms. Massarsky said. “But she had a passion for Harvard and for childcare, and so she created all five of the childcare centers at Harvard.

“She clearly was not doing it for the money,” Ms. Massarsky said. “She spent a fortune setting up these things.”

The centers were open for married students’ children, and eventually for other community members as well. She ran a few herself, and others were run by executive directors. She had just set up her latest childcare center at Harvard’s business school. “She was looking for someone to help her run it, and she hired me.” It was 1976.

A client relaxes in her newly furnished home. “You should see their faces when a couch comes through the door,” volunteer Deb Herman says.

“I was the assistant director, and she was the director, but she never came in,” Ms. Massarsky said. “I was running the whole place. I was hiring. I was setting up the systems. I was so busy and so excited and so challenged.” Her father ran his own family business — not childcare but scrap metal, but running a business to some extent is running a business. “I would ask him for advice,” she said.

She loved that experience. From there, she helped start neighboring Brookline’s afterschool childcare program. She learned a great deal from these experiences — including the idea that she should go to business school. She landed at Cornell.

“At business school, I desperately tried to get excited about private sector work,” she said. “I knew that I was never going to do investment banking or finance. I was a little interested in marketing, but I ended up deciding that I wanted to do something at the intersection of the private and nonprofit sectors.

“I wanted to take the tools of the private sector and apply them to the nonprofit world.”

She wasn’t sure exactly how to do that, but as she searched for a job, she met her husband, Barry Massarsky, who grew up in Teaneck, and whose mother, Irene, a realtor, now lives in Fort Lee.

“We found jobs,” she said. “My colleagues were making a lot of money, but I took a job at the nonprofit Foundation Center.” She was the director of development. “They are publishers; now they’re super-data-base-oriented, and they report on who gives what to whom. It’s a giant relational database.

“They were looking for someone to replace a woman on maternity leave.” That was the job she took. “Everyone said I was crazy to do it, but I knew I wasn’t.” Because of all the work she’d done in childcare centers, “I knew she wouldn’t come back.” She didn’t. The job was Cynthia’s.

“I was only there for 18 months, but I created what was essentially fund-raising software. I did it with Hewlett-Packard, who gave us a grant. I didn’t write the code, but I knew what we needed.” She provided the direction for what was a very early relational database. “That’s basically what fund-raising is now,” she said.

A client relaxes with his new furniture.

Another accomplishment from those years, “although it sounds silly, is that I got the director to be specific when asking for a grant. Before that, he wouldn’t ask for an amount, so he would get either nothing or a paltry amount. But I said that if you ask for an amount, you might get it.

“It was hugely successful.”

She left the Foundation Center because “it was not my dream job. I wanted to do something in corporate philanthropy, but at that time, in 1981, corporate philanthropy was in its infancy. People then didn’t see any reason whatsoever for companies to contribute any of their profits. Some companies did it anyway, but certainly there were no departments within a corporation taking care of it. No one was hired to do it.”

So she went to work for New Ventures, run by the man she still speaks about with great affection, her mentor, Edward Skloot. New Ventures “was about business ventures for nonprofits, to help them earn income.” It pioneered such now-obvious businesses as museum gifts shops. “You look at what your assets are, whether they’re personnel-oriented or physical or skill-based,” she said. “The idea that nonprofits could do that legally was not widely accepted then.” Now, needless to say, it is. “Now it is so commonplace that most grant applications ask nonprofits how they are earning income.”

She loved working with Mr. Skloot, and stayed there until he closed the business. “I went on to do a number of things, including working with Marlo Thomas” as director of marketing and licensing for the Ms. Foundation for Women/Free To Be You and Me Foundation. Then she went to Scholastic, Inc., as product and marketing manager.

This work involved licensing, a field then in its infancy. It was exciting — but then it got frustrating. “We did things that people didn’t do, and now they are commonplace,” Ms. Massarsky said. “I was in at the beginning of everything, but I wouldn’t stick through to see it happen. I got frustrated.”

Another client shows off her new furniture.

She was a deputy director at the Yale School of Management — Goldman Sachs Foundation’s partnership for nonprofit ventures, and a consultant on strategic initiatives for the Growth Philanthropy Network and the Social Impact Exchange. In both of those positions, she worked on adapting for-profit programs for nonprofit organizations. For example, she said, “nonprofits can scale their operations worldwide. High-performing organizations that have proven models should scale up the way the for-profit sector does. They should get bigger and better, and serve more people.”

And in her spare time, she wrote and edited books about nonprofit management for Jossey-Bass.

Ms. Massarsky still is the president of her own management consultant firm, but in 2014 she decided to retire from fulltime work. “I said I’ll pack it in,” she said. “We own a house at the Jersey Shore, so I took the summer and spent it at the beach.

“It was glorious. I stayed through September, and then by October I said, ‘Okay, this isn’t working. I am totally bored.’”

Then Hurricane Sandy struck and Ms. Massarsky had something to do. There was a local family with children with disabilities whose house had been demolished. They needed furniture; she was able to get Bob’s Discount Furniture to help them.

Next, she moved on to garden apartments in Tenafly that house people with disabilities. Working with the United Way, and its head, Tom Toronto, she furnished them, matching donors with the new furniture her United Way partners demanded. “I created an online gift registry where people could see pictures of the things we wanted,” she said. That meant that donors knew what they were giving.

Apartment residents were chosen by lottery, and applicants came from across the county. Reaction to it could have gone in any direction, and some of those directions would have been bad.

Ms Massarsky knew that she had to overcome the Not-In-My-Backyard feeling that many people have when they learn that people with disabilities — people not like themselves, people who might seem threatening, people whose presence might lower property values — are moving into the neighborhood. She did it with panache.

“We will flip Nimby on its end,” she recalls telling the mayor of Tenafly, Pete Rustin, and her United Way partner, Mr. Toronto. “Instead of keeping it quiet, we will announce that this is the kind of community that we are. We will welcome everybody.

“The mayor was totally in favor, and supported it financially. We said that we will do a big glossy postcard, which you can’t miss. Every household in Tenafly got it twice. And we had a rendering of the building, and it was going to look gorgeous.

Clients in their now-furnished living room.

“We got all the furniture fully funded,” she said. “We paid for everything. We did it on GoFundMe. So my fund-raising skills and my marketing skills taught me how to do it.”

Once she had finished that project, the mayor asked her if she wanted to continue fundraising for it, but she said that she did not. “I wanted to do the furniture part,” she said.

“In the process of getting the furniture for this project, I kept getting calls from people who said that they had furniture to donate,” she said. “I realized that there is a huge market for gently used furniture.”

In fact, demographics are contributing to a surfeit of good but unwanted furniture. As the New York Times reported last August, in “Aging Parents With Lots of Stuff, and Children Who Don’t Want It,” many older people are downsizing (and of course, as always, steadily they are dying), and their children increasingly do not want their furniture, as sturdy and well-made as often it is.

They have their own furniture, their own tastes, their own homes, their own lives. But they hate the idea of throwing out their parents’ furniture; either it’s fairly new and therefore far too good for the garbage truck’s maw, or it’s well-made and old and with a lifetime of memories that should not be dumped on the street.

She thought about all the calls she’d gotten. “And then the lightbulb went off,” Ms. Massarsky said. “I just had to get the furniture from the people who wanted to get rid of it to the people who needed it. But I also had to get warehouse space, and to find the people who can move it.

“It takes a crazy coordination effort. It’s not a new idea, but no nonprofits want to go through all that.”

At first, Ms. Massarsky couldn’t find anyone who was willing to work with her. “All the nonprofits I talked to said that this wasn’t the business they were in, and the homeless people — well, they had nothing.

“But then, I heard about this woman, Julia Orlando, who runs the homeless center in Hackensack. I went to see her, and she said, ‘Yes. When can we start?’”

Ms. Orlando, the director of Bergen County’s Next Step Initiative and her staff are case managers who help people find housing, as well as provide other kinds of help. “They find Section 8 housing landlords who will take vouchers, and also they find regular apartments for rent that are inexpensive enough. Julia works with people in a whole slew of ways.

“The shelter and the Veterans Administration in Bergen County are our two main sources of referrals,” Ms. Massarsky said. “We also work with victims of domestic abuse.”

She talks to clients and gets some idea of the kinds of furniture that they want. “We don’t go until they sign a lease,” she said. “After they sign a lease, we meet them, or the case manager. We take measurements in the apartment, because we have learned that we have to.” There’s nothing like schlepping an otherwise perfect couch, say, from the warehouse to an apartment, only to find that it doesn’t fit in the elevator, or through a door.

A satisfied client.

Ms. Massarsky has been honored for her work by the Bergen County Housing Development Corp. for furnishing housing for 14 veterans in Emerson.

Marcia Strongwater has lived in Englewood for almost four decades, and now she and her husband are downsizing. They had good furniture; they didn’t want to throw it out, but they had neither enough space nor much desire to bring it with them.

As it happened, Ms. Strongwater said, she’d taught psychology at the Dwight-Englewood School, and Julia Orlando had been one of her students there. So she made a call and “Julia connected me with Cynthia,” she said. It’s surprisingly difficult to find something to do with furniture, she added.

“The people who picked up the furniture — a couch, and chair, and an ottoman — could not have been lovelier,” Ms. Strongwater said. “They were very professional, and just really nice.”

The people who pick up the furniture, like almost everyone else who works for Making It Home, are volunteers. Many of them are police officers.

Ms. Strongwater is glad that her furniture will have a second life. “I think it will help someone who has been in a shelter,” she said.

She’s realistic, too. “My kids didn’t want me to let it go — but they are still holding onto stuff from my parents,” she said. “They are not going to get to it, so let it go to someone who needs it and can benefit from it.

“This is all about repairing the world one little step at a time. If I can do that, it makes me very happy.”

At the grand opening of the Veterans Supportive Housing Project in Emerson, Chris Schwake, left, and Cynthia Massarsky, second from right, and A.J. Luna of Bergen County Veterans Services in brown suit and tie, stand with veterans and officials.

Making It Home now is part of the Volunteer Center in Hackensack. The center asks each of the organizations of which it is composed to honor volunteers. This year, Making It Home chose to honor Joff Jones and Deb Herman, a husband and wife team who own a video production company and have made videos for the group. Mr. Jones, who also is a musician, composed and sang the song that goes under its closing credits. The center also honored two other Making It Home volunteers, Tim Franco and Joanne Carluccio.

How that came to be is mildly circular, but bear with me for a moment. In late 2016, I wrote a story about Making It Home. Ms. Herman is a graphic artist for the Jewish Standard. She read the story, “and the pictures that it painted in my mind — a picture of people who had a room and a bed and nothing else — stayed with me,” she said.

“Joff and I thought about what we could do to help, so over the past year Joff has been shooting videos of people getting their furniture. Anything we can do to help such a good cause is just paying it forward. We wanted to help, we didn’t have furniture to give — but we could show what people need, and what they got.”

Which are the most touching stories the couple has filmed? “Unfortunately, all of them are touching,” Ms. Herman said. “You wish that people did not have to go through this. You wish that they did not have to have nothing. You are thankful that Bergen County does give them some help — but Cynthia is the one who coordinates everything else.

“What makes a house a home is the little things. That’s what makes a place not seem cold.”

That’s a truth that Making It Home also knows.