At Bridging, Fran Heitzman connects the needy with furnishings others discard

Bridging founder Fran Heitzman, who recently celebrated his 88th birthday, watches a truck filled with furniture donations back up toward the warehouse Thursday, Mar. 7, 2013 at Bridging's location in Bloomington. For 25 years the organization has been providing furniture and household goods to people in need.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Fran Heitzman is strolling through a huge and unusual home furnishings warehouse in Bloomington.

"This is all the bedding, here are towels," he says. He points out thousands of square feet of shelves that hold sofas and chairs, then keeps moving. "There's pots and pans, there's glasses, this is miscellaneous stuff over here ..."

This is Bridging, a non-profit founded in 1987 by the 88-year-old Heitzman at a suburban Twin Cities church, Bridging has grown into one of North America's largest furniture banks, in which customers too poor to pay are not charged. Everything "sold" there is donated by people who might otherwise cart off their old furniture and housewares to a landfill.

Heitzman says about 60,000 homes have been furnished with Bridging's goods over the years. The chariry's executive director, Sara Sternberger, says social service agencies refer about 75 families to the charity each week.

"We need 275 pillows a week, 225 sets of towels, we need 75 couches. I mean, if you do the math every single week we need a lot of stuff," she says. And Every year about this time there's a glitch. Donations to Bridging tail off.

Heitzman says the reason is the season: Snow and ice give way to warm weather and vacations that divert peoples' attention and energy. Donors are "just not cleaning out their attic or their garage, they're not thinking about that until spring," he says. The ripple effect of the donation dearth is that fewer families get help. And Heitzman, who grew up dirt poor, lives for helping people.

Born in Iowa, his family moved when he was a baby to what is now Bloomington, where he grew up. Heitzman remembers they lived near a potato farmer. Every year his grandmother and mother would walk the field after the potato harvest scavenging the small potatoes the machines missed, and shared what she found with others. A World War II Navy veteran, he owned and operated a thriving laundry company and then a successful landscaping enterprise before Bridging became his calling.

He recalls accompanying a family on a Bridging shopping trip when one of the kids realized they'd finally have enough forks, knives and spoons to go around at meal time.

"She looks at her mom and says, 'Just think, Mom, now we won't have to share spoons when we eat,'" he says.

A few years ago he unearthed a motherlode of knives, forks and spoons in his own home.

"We're two 80-year-old people. What do we need with 20 sets of silver ware?" Heitzman says.

Heitzman says he liberated the utensils and donated them to Bridging.

He caps the story with his mantra: "You all have stuff. Give it to somebody who needs it."

The need is real. About 87 percent of the households Bridging serves have an annual income under $15,000; 57 percent of those households are families with children; 39 percent of the households are led by single mothers. By its own estimation, the charity gets referrals from 140 different nonprofit groups. It's now the largest furniture bank in North America; there are 38 in the United States, including a new one opening in St. Cloud, and Bridging offers advice to many of them on how to get started.

Still, once in a while, Heitzman and Sternberger encounter people who don't agree that charity is a good idea for helping poor people; the poor should pull themselves up and out of poverty by their bootstraps, the skeptics say.

But many poor people don't even have bootstraps, including a family to give them a boost, Sternberger says.

"Honestly, we've all had a bridging in our lives -- and for many of us it was our mom and dad."

Other critics charge that people game the system; they take advantage of the generosity of Bridging.

"Judge not, lest you be judged," Heitzman replies.

"I don't equate success in dollars and cents," he adds. "I equate success with, 'How many people did we help today?' That's success."

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