Crib donation was seed for ministry to families in need

| Julie Pfitzinger for The Catholic Spirit | August 1, 2012 | 1 Comment

Bridging marks 25 years of providing furniture, household goods to clients

Bridging founder Fran Heitzman, left, long-time volunteer Jerry Arseneau and current executive director Sara Sternberger show off one of the hundreds of donated chairs and couches that clients can choose from in the organization’s Bloomington warehouse. Dianne Towalski / The Catholic Spirit

The baby who received the first crib that unofficially launched Bridging at Pax Christi in Eden Prairie is now a twentysomething.

Fran Heitzman, former maintenance man at the church, was given the crib by a parishioner who thought it might be useful for the church nursery. No one, including Heitzman, would ever have predicted  that 25 years later, Bridging would be providing furniture and household items.

Last month, the non-profit organization, now the largest furniture bank in North America, was poised to serve its 60,000th family.

“Never ever in my wildest dreams,” said Heitzman, 87, who founded Bridging in 1987 and still remains an active volunteer at the Bloomington warehouse. (There is a second site in Roseville).

After calling Catholic Charities about that crib and hearing how grateful they were for the donation, Heitzman said he started thinking about a simple idea —gathering quality items from people who didn’t need them anymore for people who did.

“Pretty soon, word got around and I had stuff stored all over the church,” said Heitzman. “Our pastor [at the time] . . . told me I was starting a ministry, but I didn’t really even know what that meant.”

Before long, warehouse space was donated by a Pax Christi parishioner, everything was moved out of the church and Heitzman started using “an old beat-up truck and an old potato chip van” for transporting the furniture and other items.  A ministry was born.

Caring for neighbors

More than 87 percent of the households referred by social service agencies to Bridging have an annual income of less than $15,000 per year — more than half the families have children.

Families who are referred to Bridging work directly with a volunteer during their visit who helps them navigate the warehouse and find the furniture and other household goods that meet their needs.  All items are available to families free of charge.

Jerry Arseneau has been a volunteer at the Bloomington warehouse since 2001.  A veteran sales representative, now retired, Arseneau enjoys working directly with the clients.

“There are many times when people come in and they seem very depressed and weary,” he said. “Things haven’t been real good for them. We work with them, help them find what they need, and when they are finished, I can tell they feel like they have accomplished something.”

Volunteers at Bridging (more than 6,000 each year, from young people to seniors) place a premium on showing respect for every client, something that has always been paramount for Heitzman.

“We treat people with dignity because they deserve that. Every one of us could be in their shoes,” said Heitzman. “It is a privilege to work with them.”

Executive director Sara Sternberger said the past two years have brought an increase in the number of clients who have been homeless at some point during the 12 months prior to their Bridging visit.

“Fran’s philosophy has always been that we are called to take care of our neighbors. We don’t judge anyone that comes through our door,” she said.

How to donateBridging accepts the following new or gently used furniture and household goods: living room, dining room and bedroom furniture; kitchen essentials; small essentials such as towels, pillows, lamps and small appliances. For a complete list, visit

Donations are accepted at both warehouses Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed Sunday.

  • Bloomington site: 201 West 87th Street.
  • Roseville site: 1633 Terrace Drive.

Pick-ups can also be scheduled (for a fee); check the website for more details, or call (952) 888-1105.

Financial donations are always welcome. If you are interested in volunteering for Bridging, visit the website to learn more.

Community stops scheduled

To commemorate the organization’s anniversary this year, Sternberger said in addition to their annual spring and fall drives at many local churches, Bridging is scheduling 25 community stops from now through December at churches, companies, corporate partners and faith-based organizations where items will be collected. (See box on page 3 for more information about items accepted at Bridging and ways to donate).

Sternberger said Bridging “also fits so well into the green movement” as many donors welcome the opportunity to give their items a second life and not have them discarded into a landfill.  If Bridging receives donations they are unable to use, Sternberger said those items are passed along to organizations like St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Stores in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Heitzman, who refers to himself as “the chief cook and bottle washer” at Bridging, never misses an opportunity to talk about the organization and its mission, and  he is always very grateful when he meets past Bridging clients.

“I was at church with one of my sons not long ago and a woman in front of us recognized me from Bridging,” he said. “She was sitting with her teenage daughter and told me this girl had received one of our beds when she was young.”

“I think of all the people who are living better because Bridging is here,” he continued. “This is my motto: when good people get together to do good things, good things happen.”

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