Let me tell you about this place called Bridging.
Bridging is a non-profit furniture bank (like a food bank) based in Minnesota that provides home furnishings, appliances and miscellaneous home goods to people who have transitioned out of homelessness and poverty.
All clients who come to Bridging receive a “Basic Home Essential Package” consisting of most items necessary for creating a comfortable and functioning home. The fun part is, clients get to furnish their homes for free.
“As families face the exhausting challenge of finding affordable housing, employment, education and health care, they are left with severely limited resources to furnish their home. A furnished home environment is a basis for improved job performance, better grades in school and healthy family interactions. By relieving the pressure to purchase furnishings, Bridging services provide families a comfortable home and allow them to focus on other crucial matters in their life.” – bridging.org
I learned about Bridging when I was extended an invite to join a kitchen pack drive organized by my fellow NAPO professional organizers that was to be held at this place called Bridging. I had no expectations going in but I LOVED what I saw and learned from the 30-minute tour that I just had to write about it here.
The Tour was led by Diana Dalsin Bridging’s Community Relations Manager. As we entered the area of the warehouse where clients get to shop, it quickly reminded me of the racks at S&R, only this one had used items displayed. I was amazed by the neatly showcased furniture, misc. accessories and overall variety of things available. It also reminded me of the vintage shops in Kamuning.
Started in a basement of a church back in 1987, Bridging has helped over 95,000 households (about 300,000 individuals) - that’s more than 4,500 households served per year and more than half of the individuals served were children under 17 years of age.
Bridging is a leader in REUSE - reducing landfill space by 10 million pounds each year.
Although not the first and only furniture bank in the US (there are about 80+), Bridging is the largest and most successful of its kind based on how many families they get to serve per week – about 90 families a week. Imagine that.
How it works:
As a Donor
Anyone can donate at Bridging. New or used items for donation come from a variety of sources - from residential to non-residential donors like corporate offices, hotels, retailers, furniture manufacturers and restaurants. Items are either dropped off at the Bridging warehouse or picked up for a fee. Donors may also donate cash.
All incoming donations are first inspected before they are accepted. Items must be in good condition, clean and should have no rips, stains, odors or pet hair. Any item that doesn’t pass Bridging’s standards are not allowed entry to the warehouse (disposal costs are expensive - about $600 to fill a dumpster - this is why Bridging must turn away anything that cannot be reused). The goal is to provide clients items with dignity which means, donations must be gently used and functional. One fun fact is that Bridging even uses trained canines to sniff for any bed bugs before accepting mattresses or other furniture.
Inside the warehouse, there are workshop areas where volunteers (usually done by retired handymen, electricians and carpenters) carry out minor repairs like fixing loose legs of tables, rewiring of lamps, some light cleaning or polishing of furniture etc.. I like how they even cut the legs of hotel desks and turn them into coffee tables. The staff and volunteers make sure all items placed on the display racks at the warehouse are good to go.
I was amazed to see the organized carpentry and electrical repair area.
As a Client transitioning out of homelessness and poverty:
Not everyone gets an appointment to shop at Bridging. There is a waitlist and pre-qualification requirements to be met. In order to qualify, a person has to be referred by a registered partner agency (whether a human service provider, healthcare agency or faith community) who knows of the candidate’s history of being homeless and who can now prove job stability. This is so Bridging can support and serve those who are in most need by prioritizing people who have a stable housing set up and the means to sustain paying for an apartment.
Clients range from people who have lost their employment, refugees, battered women escaping domestic abuse and others wherein every one of them may have had to endure being homeless for months. Once they qualify, they are put on the waitlist for an appointment to shop at Bridging. (There is an appointment fee but this can be covered by their agency.) Clients are coached to come prepared for the big day by having a list of priorities and knowing other details such as the room sizes of their apartments.
When Shopping Day finally arrives (I’m excited for them!), only one representative is allowed per family / household to do the shopping (outside of a need for a translator or if the client needs physical assistance due to disability, then another person is allowed to join). The client is tasked to pick and choose from the wide range of options to furnish their apartment but within a time limit. Interestingly, clients are only given 45 minutes to shop. Shop for a whole apartment in 45 minutes??? Ikr?
Upon hearing this during the tour, I turned to whisper to Aimee Olson (a woman who I mistook for a Bridging staff because she was wearing a jacket with a Bridging logo on it. Later, I found out that she was the president of the NAPO MN chapter), “Why just 45 minutes? Is this so they don’t take too long to choose and are forced to focus?” She said, “Partly yes, but it’s also because the appointment covers the shopping, packing and loading of items so totaling to about an hour at the warehouse.” Bridging serves clients and does delivery runs multiple times a day so everything needs to happen efficiently in order to be able to serve more clients per week.
Back to the fun part, apparently clients don’t just go to the warehouse and race to grab whatever they want. They must be assisted by a “Shopper” well, 2 Shoppers- one breaks off to carefully pack chosen items and the other serves as a consultant.
The Shopper (consultant) is there to answer any questions or help clients visualize which items can go well together with other pieces they have chosen for their space. Shoppers can also give suggestions on different ways certain furniture can be used such as using a bookcase as an additional closet for folded clothes. Aimee tells me (several months later through Zoom), there are some clients who have never experienced shopping for furniture in their life, so a Shopper can help them make the right decisions.
The Basic Home Essential Package:
There is a limited amount of items per category a client / family may take. Numbers may vary from time to time depending on the inventory available. Depending on this count, a client can get:
mattresses, box springs, upholstered furniture for the living and dining rooms (enough seating for each member of the household)
wood furniture (bookshelves, dressers, desk, coffee table, side tables etc.)
“Bonus Furniture” (ottomans, coat racks, extra dining chairs, etc.)
2 lamps per family
a towel set for each person (1 washcloth / 1 hand towel / 1 bath towel)
a set of bed linens per person (1 fitted / 1 top sheet / 1 pillowcase)
2 electronic items (vacuum / coffee maker / toaster / TV (this goes fast) / radio etc.)
for kitchen items: 2 cookware / 2 bakeware per family
dinnerware is always in sets of 4 / 6 / 8 / 12 and always sorted into mismatched sets (even if there was a matching set that arrived) to keep it fair
a set of essential kitchen utensils called a “kitchen pack” (can opener, mixing spoon, kitchen towel etc.)
a “free for all section” that is unlimited within reason (coffee cups, kitchen tools, storage containers, decorative items like framed artworks etc.)
Everything is free for the client except for the optional delivery service that does require a fee. Isn't it amazing that the package pretty much covers most of the basic items one needs to set up a home?
I made these "kitchen packs".
As a Volunteer
I was amazed to find out that volunteers undergo “poverty workshops” where they are given a small amount of money and tasked to stretch it for a whole week. This is to help them gain perspective on what a client goes through. Volunteers are also trained to be thoughtful on what they say to clients with the goal being, “To have the client walk away with dignity and without feeling that they are still lacking,” says Aimee.
This is where the volunteers sort donations.
After the tour, I asked Diana what happens to the things that don’t get chosen? She said all it takes is to move the item to another area and pizzazz it with some accessories and bam! it’s a whole new furniture with a whole new vibe. She says the longest time items have stayed in the warehouse was 2 weeks.
I also wondered if clients are allowed to come back for a second round and Aimee said that yes, it’s possible but rare. It would be situations where there would be devastations like a fire.
Hearing Diana talk about the endless tracking and recording of the ins and outs of inventories etc., I realized how much work it takes to keep the place running smoothly. From accepting new donations, serving clients on site, packing shopped items, loading, delivering, restocking shelves to making sure there are enough items, filling out paperwork and overall coordination that goes on with the staff, volunteers, case workers, clients, delivery people etc., all showed me that this is one organized place.
Bridging is so organized that they know how many people they can serve on their “worst weeks” meaning, when they are low in inventory. When this happens, Bridging calls on their partners on which items are running low and these partners usually come through to fill the gaps. Bridging is partnered with multiple local and national furniture stores / manufacturers like Room&Board. Bridging even sets up their schedule in such a way that they can be effective and efficient in serving clients, but not to the point of overextending themselves.
As we walked around more aisles during the tour, Diana spoke about a refugee client that came to the warehouse and kept choosing very colorful furniture pieces. She then found out that it was because the family has slept on the dirt floor for so long that they just wanted a home full of color.
The story Fran Heitzman or “Founder Fran” (the man who started it all) shared in the introduction video shown before the tour, was about a mom with a little girl that he helped with their shopping at Bridging. When they reached the silverware bin, the little girl took the silverware in her hand and looked at her mom and said, “Just think mom, now we don’t have to share spoons when we eat.” Founder Fran was so moved that when he got home, he opened their silverware drawer and saw 20 sets of silverware. He “stole” 5 sets and brought it to Bridging. It took his wife a year and a half to notice they were gone.
Just before Thanksgiving, one woman picked up a big pot and shared that it would be her first time to cook a Thanksgiving meal for her family.
Another was about a man who was very anxious and overwhelmed when he arrived. He could not focus and make decisions on which items to get for his home. While walking around the shop he kept fretting about getting the right mattress. He was worried that if he couldn’t get the right one, he would not be able to get proper sleep which may make him late or miss work, which could get him fired and be unable to pay bills, heating etc. which could lead him back to the streets again. Once he got to choose the right mattress, everything else went smoothly.
There was also a mention of a client who kept picking furniture with lots of flowers and turns out, it was because it reminded him of his grandma’s furniture where he used to live as a child.
“Bridging is the bridge that connects those in need and those who have excess.” I just loved this place so much I could just hug it. I really enjoyed being there, learning about it and witnessing the heart and genuineness of the place. If I lived close by I would for sure be a regular volunteer.
The heart, the thoughtfulness, coordination, collaboration, organization, the systems and boundaries in the Bridging ecosystem are all orchestrated to serve as many clients as possible. It’s a well-oiled machine that uses love as its fuel. Founder Fran deserves a salute.
As I left Bridging, I wondered if something like this could be done in Manila. Would it work? How can it work?
"When good people get together and do good things, then good things happen.” — Fran Heitzman, Bridging founder
What happened to Bridging during the first half year of Covid -19? They quickly set up virtual shopping trips for clients!
“The Client Services team has found virtual shopping to be a more accessible way for some clients to shop. Those with mobility limits, transportation and childcare concerns, or health limitations find shopping from an offsite location to be a great way to reduce stress and stay safe while still offering a dignified appointment.” - Bridging.org
Also, donations flew in, filling up the warehouse as many households stayed home, started decluttering their space and sent their donates to Bridging. Yay!
For more info on Bridging: https://bridging.org/
Watch this touching video: https://youtu.be/uiEK64XKTc0
For inviting me and giving lovely A’s to my Q’s, credits to:
Christine Daves of Think Organized www.think-organized.com
Aimee Olson of Life Done Simply https://www.lifedonesimply.com/
Diana Dalsin of Bridging