Wednesday, August 20, 2014
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Bridging Inc. helps families rebuild their lives

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Bridging, Inc. founder Fran Heitzman stands by hundreds of mattresses stored in the Bloomington warehouse. (MPR Photo/Greta Cunningham)
Many programs aimed at helping homeless people and new immigrants focus on housing. But locating shelter isn't the end of their struggle. With no cooking utensils, how will they make their meals? Where will they sit? How can children excel in school if they're sleeping on the floor? A Bloomington-based nonprofit is filling the void left when people find a place to live, but have nothing to furnish a household.

Bloomington, Minn. — Bridging Inc. founder Fran Heitzman has told the story hundreds, if not thousands of times. But he never gets tired of sharing the tale of how he started Bridging, Inc. in 1987.

"I was the maintenance man at Pax Christi Church in Eden Prairie. And a woman brought in a crib and asked me if we could use it in our nursery. I said, 'No, but just leave it here and I'll find a home for it.' I called Catholic Charities and they were overjoyed to get a crib," recalls Heitzman. "So that afternoon I just thought to myself, 'Why can't we do this? Why can't we take things people no longer need and give them to someone who needs it?'"

Soon the donations were pouring in and the program was forced to find a bigger space. For years Bridging Inc. borrowed a series of vacant warehouses. In 1998, the organization built its own 26,000 sq. ft. warehouse in Bloomington. Last January a second warehouse opened in the St. Cloud area.

Bridging Inc. has a good relationship with area hotels. Recently, Mystic Lake Casino decided to change the d├ęcor of its rooms and donated all of the old blankets and bedspreads.

Ron Osterbauer, the group's executive director, says this year Bridging Inc. is outfitting about 100 households a week. He says that's up from 75 families a week last year.

"About 80 percent of our clients earn less than $15,000 a year. A majority of them come from Hennepin County, but right now we're providing service in 24 counties," says Osterbauer. "A good share of them are women, and the sad part is that 46 percent of our clients are children under the age of 15."

On a recent morning, 18 families were signed up to pick out furniture. Fran Heitzman says there's a system to making sure people get what they need.

"I start them out in kitchen tables here, and you can see we have a great variety of tables," says Heitzman.

The Bridging Inc. warehouse is clean, well-organized and filled with all kinds of furniture; from the sturdy, plaid couches from the 1970s to brand new, just-out-of-the-box desks donated by Target.

Bridging's clients are screened through a social service agency. A social worker makes a home visit and determines what the family needs to run their household.

A checklist is made, and the clients have 45 minutes to take a guided shopping spree through Bridging's warehouse. They comb aisle after aisle of couches, kitchen tables, lamps, blankets and other household goods.

(A little girl) looks at the silverware, and she looks at her mom and says, 'Just think Mom, now we won't have to share spoons when we eat.'
- Bridging Inc. founder Fran Heitzman

"Oh goodness, this place is awesome. And they do have some very nice things up here to help families with," says Steven Walker, a married father of two teenage girls and a 12-year-old son.

Until recently, his family has been homeless. But thanks to a social service agency they now live in a Bloomington apartment. Walker says he's back at work and things are looking up. He says he likes the quality of the furniture, and he found what he was looking for.

"A nice sofa. It's very good and sturdy. I looked for it because of my wife, having a surgical plate in her back. So I have to have something that's comfortable for her. That was one of my main things. I was very concerned for her, not so much for me," Walker says. "And then we found a recliner."

Walker says the new apartment and furniture will help his children feel better about their future.

Bridging founder Fran Heitzman says he's often touched by the reaction of children when they accompany their parents on the shopping spree.

"I'm standing right alongside this little girl. She looks at the silverware, she's holding it in her hand, and she looks at her mom and says, 'Just think Mom, now we won't have to share spoons when we eat.' Think what a spoon meant to that little girl," Heitzman recalls.

Heitzman says people who have homes often take simple possessions for granted. He says for most people, it's difficult to really picture what it's like rebuild a life from scratch.

"Can you imagine a woman coming out of a battered women's shelter? She's got three little kids and they walk into an apartment. They look around and they set down three plastic bags of clothes. There's nothing in that apartment," says Heitzman. "Now somewhere along the line she may have been given a can of soup. She does not have a can opener to open it with. She does not have a pan to heat it with on the stove. That's where Bridging comes in. We can supply that woman with everything basic she needs to set up this household."

Heitzman acknowledges the program has its critics.

"A lot of people say to me, 'Oh, them people that you try to serve -- they're all lazy and greedy and don't know how to work and stuff.' No, I wish they could be here for just one day and listen to their stories. They would change their attitude in a big, big hurry," says Heitzman.

"Because these people are just like you and I. Flesh and blood. Fallen on hard times. And somebody has to be there to say, 'Hey, I want to be there for you. I want to help you. I want to change your life.' And that's what we do here. That's what we do."

About 1,400 volunteers work at Bridging Inc. Heitzman calls them "living saints." He says they're the key to the organization's success.

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