Amanda Gilliam remembers vividly what it was like to deliver a mattress to the apartment of an international student who had traveled to Tuscaloosa with his family for school.
“They were so grateful and said, ‘Now everybody doesn’t have to sleep on the floor,’” Gilliam recalled.
Needs like that are why she and three other women in the city started a furniture giveaway to help the hundreds of international students who arrive at the University of Alabama every fall without household items or furniture for their apartments.
“Ninety-nine percent don’t have a car when they get here or the means to set up an apartment,” explained Gilliam, a member of Five Points Baptist Church. “We’re going to help them and love on them here and tell them why we’re helping them: ‘We love Jesus, and that’s why we’re helping you.’”
Gilliam and her ministry partners — Kristin Reed, Maggie Raburn and Nesha Smelley — got the idea several years ago after taking “Perspectives,” a course that helps followers of Christ understand their global purpose.
Reed, a member of Calvary Baptist Church, said she had been praying for God to show her what He wanted her to be involved in and “He kept putting international students in my path.”
So when Raburn suggested a furniture giveaway, Reed was on board, as were the others. To get started they reached out to a church in another state that had been doing something similar for about 20 years to get some pointers.
Then they started collecting items in a church annex and later used shipping containers. Now Capstone Church, where Raburn and Smelley are members, rents a 3,500-square-foot warehouse to store the donations.
This year’s International Connect Tuscaloosa Furniture Giveaway was the group’s fourth, bringing together more than 70 volunteers from 14 churches. To participate, students sign up for an appointment on the ICT website, then arrive on a Thursday night to “shop” for free in the warehouse.
“We pair them with American college students to walk around with them and shop for household items,” Gilliam said, noting many of the students need everything from sheets and towels to a bed and a chair. “It gives them an opportunity to connect, and everybody gets to leave with plates and forks and stuff.”
Then on Friday, volunteers load up the items the students requested into six U-Haul trucks, and on Saturday they are delivered.
Reed said she and other volunteers have “a great opportunity to serve and welcome them in by giving them beds to sleep in, desks to study at and chairs to sit in.”
It’s a “huge community effort,” she added. “When you see so many volunteers coming together, it’s a beautiful picture of how people are using their gifts and talents that the Lord has given them. Ultimately it gives God the glory.”
And it’s the first time some of the students have interacted with a follower of Christ.
“A lot of them will go back to their countries, and we would love for them to have an experience with Jesus while they’re here,” Reed said. “What greater thing for them to take back with them.”
“We want to give them something to sleep on, but we also want to give them the gospel.”
While students are at the furniture giveaway they also can connect with Tuscaloosa International Friends, a community organization that pairs students with Tuscaloosa families, and learn about opportunities for local ESL classes.
Though the big giveaway is in August, ICT also helps new students arriving for the spring semester in January.
And the ministry extends past furniture. Raburn said they’ve been able to build relationships with students through the effort, having them over for meals, baking them birthday cakes and in some cases even taking them on vacation.
“It’s a mission field right here,” she said. “It’s opened our eyes.”
For more information, visit ttownfga.com or check out the International Connect Tuscaloosa Furniture Giveaway page on Facebook.