Towel donation soaks up shortages at Bridging

by Molly Thomson

Sun Current Intern

Fran Heitzman has a phrase he likes to use to describe Bridging: “When good people get together and do good (work) then good things happen.”

He smiled, gesturing about him and saying, “And good things happen here every single day.”

Heitzman, founder of Bridging, has no reservations asking for help to make such good things happen. Bridging is a nonprofit organization that internally refers to itself as a “furniture bank.” The organization provides furniture and other household items to families in need, often on the edge of poverty. It has locations in Bloomington and Roseville.

To put it simply, “There’s a certain amount of stuff that you need to live,” said Sara Sternberger, Bridging’s executive director. “We provide that.”

Fran Heitzman
Bridging founder Fran Heitzman (Sun Current photo by Molly Thomson)

Heitzman’s baby, the largest furniture bank in North America, all started with a crib. In 1987, Heitzman was working as a maintenance man at Pax Christie Church in Eden Prairie, and a woman approached him asking if the church could use her old crib in the children’s nursery. Heitzman told her that they did not need it, but he vowed to find another home for it.

“I called Catholic Charities and they were overjoyed to get a crib. So that afternoon I just thought to myself, why can’t we do this?” Heitzman remembered. “I just went down the street, bought an old warehouse, and the rest is history. It just exploded.”

However, despite its success story, Bridging runs into shortages now and again, like a recent need for towels. Heitzman intercepted Donaldson Company’s CEO, Bill Cook, for help.

“(Cook) brought the interns out for a tour (of Bridging),” said Sternberger. “They’re right down the street so he always brings the interns for their service project to Bridging. He just happened to be taking them through and Fran said, ‘Hey! We’re short on towels! What can you do?’”

Cook delivered. He wrote an email requesting his employees to bring in two towels each, and Donaldson Company donated more than 800 in all.

“Bill’s out there helping them load up the truck, the CEO of a major corporation,” Sternberger laughed. “One of our employees was like, ‘That’s the CEO? Really?’”

“That’s not the CEO,” Heitzman said. “That’s a friend of Bridging. That’s the kind of people that we want.”

towel donation
Heidi Haller from Wells Fargo helps to organize donated towels by color so that families in need will be able to customize their homes. Donaldson Company’s towel donation will serve over 800 individuals in need, and Wells Fargo is one of many businesses, like Donaldson Company, that donates its time and energy to help Bridging. (Sun Current photo by Molly Thomson)

“We have always been philanthropy-minded,” added Becky Cahn, corporate communications manager of Donaldson. “That’s what (our founder) believed in. I think one of the reasons Donaldson is involved with Bridging is the passion that Fran has. It’s contagious.”

“Bill knows Fran well enough to know that if he shows his face in here, we’re gonna ask him to do something,” Sternberger agreed with a laugh.

Donaldson Company has a history of partnering with Bridging to help out when needed.

And whether from Donaldson Company or other businesses, help is needed.

“This is not a large corporation or a furniture store where you can just call up and order what you want,” explained Heitzman. “We have to follow the ebb and flow of what comes in. When corporations or people or churches step up to the plate, if we have a definite need we convey that to them. And that is a great asset to us because then we don’t have to send people away and not have anything to give them. That’s very hard when you have to do that.”

Heidi Schwitzer, Bridging’s communication and events manager, also stressed the difference in awareness between food shelves and furniture banks.

“There’s so many things that people don’t think to donate, all the way down to your can opener,” she said. “If you go to a food shelf and you get a can that isn’t a pull-top and you don’t have a can opener, how will you open it? How will you cook it if you don’t have a pan? It’s those kinds of things people don’t think about. Think about when you go to bed at night and lie down, all the things that are there. You have a pillow, pillow case, mattress, box spring, sheet, comforter…that’s like seven pieces!”

Sternberger agreed, adding that many people are unaware of the need present in the suburbs at all.

“We’ve seen a real rise in poverty in the suburbs but if you live in neighborhoods with like-minded and like-income people, it’s hard to see that,” she said. “There are poor people everywhere. You just don’t know that they’re poor.”

According to Sternberger, there will always be need for Bridging.

“I don’t think the need ever gets better,” she said. “There are always people out there who have a need. We serve 4,000 families a year. That’s 12,000 individuals, and half of those are children. There are these big goals to end poverty and homelessness, but I just don’t see it happening. There’s injustice and inequality built into our society, but we do the best we can. If we just sat around and prayed about it we wouldn’t get anything done.”

When asked what Bridging needs most, Sternberger’s answer was instant: “Mattresses. We’re always short on mattresses that are in good shape. If we ever have to reduce our appointments it’s because we don’t have mattresses up to our quality standards. It’s hard, because if you’re giving away your mattress it probably isn’t good anymore.”

Bridging is also in constant need of dressers, pillows, towels, and pots and pans. The nonprofit accepts donations at its Roseville and Bloomington locations, or can send a truck to any household in the metro area to collect items.

Schwitzer wants people to remember Bridging in times of transition.

“When people are moving and take the time to look at the website and see the items listed … I bet if you took a look right now you would see at least 10 things on there that you’d say, ‘Oh my goodness, I had no idea!’”

Heitzman, in addition to his favorite phrase, also has a favorite story.

He was at a dedication for a Habitat for Humanity house in North Minneapolis.

“I watched two little girls get off the school bus … they were told I was from Bridging and so they took me by the hand and to their bedroom to show me their beds,” Heitzman remembered. “There were brand-new pillows, clean sheets, lovely blankets. They had been sleeping in a shelter for over a year. Think what those beds meant to those two little girls. One of the things that just upsets me is that we can put men in a rocket and ship them to the moon and we allow those little girls to sleep on the floor for a year? Come on. Somebody has to do something about it. Not talk about it. Do something.”

Bridging’s Bloomington location is at 201 W. 87th St. Drop-off hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Thursday, and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday-Saturday. The phone number is 952-888-1105. Go to bridging.org for more information.