The idea came to John Ingram when he gathered with his family around their dining room table, but he didn’t know it yet.
This was a couple of months ago, when Nebraska’s rising rivers were forcing people from their homes.
“We were talking about how terrible the floods were, and how sad it was that people were losing everything — and they weren’t able to have a dinner like we’re having,” he said this week. “We were talking about how we could help. That’s what we do as neighbors, as Nebraskans. We help.”
They considered taking time off to volunteer. They talked about what they could donate. Ingram was reflecting on it later, when he thought about the table they’d been sitting around earlier, a table the amateur woodworker had built for his family.
And what a table like that can mean to a family.
“One of the most important pieces of furniture in any home is the dining room table. It’s where they gather together, it’s where they pray.”
The Reclaim Rebuild Restore Project — a plan to enlist other woodworkers to build dining room tables, to donate them to flood victims — started taking shape. Slowly, at first.
Ingram, an associate athletic director at Nebraska by day, looked on campus for help, checking with the volunteer coordinator. But there was no plan in place at the university to donate furniture.
He called the Salvation Army. He was told: Sorry, not here. Try Habitat for Humanity of Omaha.
Then he got lucky. His Habitat contact happened to be in Lincoln that day, at Innovation Campus.
“We had lunch,” Ingram said. “And the whole idea was born.”
Habitat has a warehouse just north of TD Ameritrade Park, full of old-growth lumber recovered from blighted homes it demolishes and replaces in north Omaha. And it was happy to donate some of the wood to builders taking part in Ingram’s project, said Mark Coffin, Habitat’s veteran outreach coordinator.
“It’s very important,” Coffin said. “Regardless of how many tables they make, the whole concept of wanting to give back to the community is going to make a difference in the long run.”
He works closely with long-term flood recovery efforts in counties across the state, and he volunteered to help match deserving families with donated tables.
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It’s going to make a difference, he said. “Our vision isn’t good enough to see what’s going to happen. But I can see good things coming out of the families who are graced with these tables.”
Ingram was the first recipient of the lumber. He drove to Omaha and filled his pickup with sturdy lengths of pine and Douglas fir that were last put to work in the 1900s.
“I planed it up, got it all cleaned up and let that inspire me to design a table,” he said.
He spent about 24 hours using Nebraska Innovation Studio’s tools and makerspace to build a pedestal table, and then he started recruiting — making a presentation at the studio last month, reaching out to woodworking groups.
He figures a half-dozen builders are now working on tables, including the father-son pair of Brian and Will Cox.
The two were already at Innovation Studio, finishing their own dining room table, when they heard about Ingram’s plan.
“It seemed logical,” Brian Cox said. “Having access to the tools and having access to the material, it inspired us throw a little bit of our own labor at it.”
The two visited the warehouse Memorial Day weekend, selecting an assortment of 2-by-8-inch former floor joists — old, rough pieces of fir and cedar they’ve smoothed and shaped for nearly 100 hours now, turning them into the future heart of a stranger’s home.
“If you look at a dining room table throughout life, it’s where birthdays are, where anniversaries are, where a special Sunday meal might be,” Brian Cox said. “That’s where all the celebrations are.”
The Reclaim Rebuild Restore project got another boost late this week, when Ingram learned the Nebraska Forest Service would donate kiln-dried ash — harvested in Lincoln because of the emerald ash borer — to the table-makers.
Ingram doesn’t have a timeline for his project, or a hard goal. The need will continue, he said. He knows there are flood victims who still haven’t returned home, who don’t know when they will.
But he wants at least some of them to have a stable place to gather when they do.
“If we only get one table, we make a huge difference for at least one family. Each table is a small victory.”