‘Bridging’ the gap between the haves, have nots

This is the story of an organization called Bridging and Fran Heitzman, its founder who developed it into the largest nonprofit furniture bank in North America.

The project is so simple, any community can do it, but it takes a special kind of leadership and persistence to make it happen.

Bridging, with outlets in Bloomington and Roseville, serves people who need furniture in the Twin Cities area. Since 1987, Bridging has furnished 70,000 homes of needy families.

It all started when Heitzman was a custodian at Pax Christi Catholic church in Eden Prairie. Someone stopped by with a used crib and wanted to donate it. Heitzman took it and contacted a local agency that was thrilled to get it.

Heitzman, now 90, recalls how he thought back then how “We can create a bridge between those in need and those with excess.”

Today those in need, working through 150 agencies, can apply for furniture that is collected with a fleet of 11 semitrucks and taken to two warehouses. Volunteers help unload trucks, sort through goods, inspect linens and restock shelves. A group builds dressers with dresser kits furnished by Bridging.

There is a small charge to pick up household goods, and there is small fee for the clients.

Recently Heitzman talked to a group of Bloomington residents on studying leadership and project development.

One key to building the nonprofit was building trust, he said. “This is essential. Don’t lose it.”

One by one, volunteers joined him, and Bridging moved out into the community, collecting used household goods and giving them to those in need

Businesses joined the effort. Coldwell Banker employees collected 7,000 pillows this year, hotels have donated used furniture and businesses have donated money.

Heitzman’s battle cry throughout the 28 years is “you don’t need all that stuff. If you have three lamps, give one of them away.”

There are so many ways to get involved in Bridging: Host an essentials drive and collect all sizes and types of towels, since 12,000 towels a year are needed; host a drive for pillows, since 240 are needed per week; host a drive for kitchen packs to give every home a set.

The joy for Heitzman comes when he gets letters from people Bridging has helped.

One came from a homeless veteran who said, “You saved my life.”

Another came from a family: “I am so proud of my two simple beds and pillows, after sleeping in a shelter for 18 months.”

And a girl said to her sister after receiving furniture from Bridging: “Look at all the stuff. We aren’t poor anymore.”

Heitzman has a simple philosophy. If you see a need, do something and act.

He’s raising money to build a bigger warehouse.

“We’re half way there. You have to ask or you aren’t going to get it,” he said. No one doubts that the money will be raised.

Now 90 and still active in Bridging, Heitzman says he lives by three simple desires. “You need someone to love, something to look forward to and you need something to do.”

If Bridging answers that need for you, visit bridging.org. — Don Heinzman (Editor’s note: Heinzman is a columnist for ECM Publishers.)