At 92, Bridging’s founder still outfits families with your donated furniture – TwinCities.com-Pioneer Press
Fran Heitzman, 92, has unsuccessfully tried to retire three times.
It isn’t financial insecurity that’s stopping him, despite a “dirt poor” childhood. It’s passion for helping others that keeps Heitzman working six days a week.
“I have no money, but I always tell people I am one of the richest people that ever walked the face of this earth,” Heitzman said. “I’m the happiest guy that God ever created.”
The Bloomington man is celebrating his 30th year with Bridging, a nonprofit he founded to provide furniture to those transitioning out of homelessness and poverty.
“When good people get together and do good things, then good things happen,” Heitzman said. It’s his motto, and a common phrase for Bridging folks. He added: “And good things happen here every single day.”
‘I KNOW WHAT IT IS TO BE POOR’
Heitzman’s determination to help others stems in part from his own childhood — during the Great Depression.
His dad worked for 75 cents a day. The first pair of purchased pants he ever had was when he made his First Communion at 7 years old.
“When I was in high school in Bloomington in the ’40s, if a girl came to school and had a new sweater on, we all rejoiced because she had something new,” Heitzman said. “It was just a different time, people shared then.”
He said he’ll always remember the Christmas when they got to eat fresh apples and oranges — gifts from a woman who lived nearby.
“I know what it is to be poor,” Heitzman said.
He started a cleaning firm using $2.17 kept in a cigar box and later got into landscaping. He intentionally spent an entire year working in maintenance for a friend’s business with no payment.
‘BRIDGE THE GAP’
In 1987, Heitzman was working at Pax Christi Catholic Church in Eden Prairie as a custodian. A woman unexpectedly appeared at the church with a piece of furniture and asked Heitzman if it could be used in the children’s nursery.
Heitzman told her it couldn’t, but he was sure he could find another use for it.
He made some calls and found a social service agency thrilled with the offering. Heitzman realized it was a golden nonprofit opportunity.
The goal: to “bridge the gap between those who have and those who have not.”
A born salesman, Heitzman now sells people the opportunity to do good.
“I always tell people, ‘I’m going to give you the avenue to do some good with your money. You’re not going to take anything along with you when you go, so why don’t you spread it around now?’” Heitzman said.
$1,800 VALUE PER FAMILY
Heitzman’s sales tactics work.
In the 30 years since Bridging began, it has served more than 85,000 households.
The average household receives 500 cubic feet of furniture that totals an estimated $1,800 value.
Beds are the most important item clients are given, but they also receive dressers, couches, pillows, towels, kitchen utensils (pizza cutters are always popular) and plenty more.
When one young girl and her mother were given silverware, the girl turned to her mom and said, ‘Just think, Mom, now we won’t have to share spoons when we eat!”
Heitzman said he was so touched that he donated five personal sets of silverware. His wife didn’t even realize they were missing for several months.
Bridging serves about 85 families per week between its locations in Bloomington and Roseville. In addition to 30 paid employees, volunteers contribute about 80,000 hours of time each year.
Only 20 percent of furniture donations are from corporations; the rest are from individuals and families.
And Heitzman ensures the donations are high quality. “I don’t want your junk,” he tells donors.
For clients like Erica Hartgraves, Bridging is life-changing. Hartgraves was a teenage parent just coming out of homelessness when she discovered Bridging and used its services.
“I never forgot about these people,” Hartgraves said. She now owns a hot dog stand, The Dawg House, with her husband, James Hartgraves, who also used Bridging. They sold hot dogs at a recent open house Bridging held at its Roseville location.
“We’re just chasing the dream. Not living the dream yet, but chasing the dream,” James Hartgraves said. They sell Chicago-style and regular hot dogs.
After Erica Hartgraves got herself established, she returned to Bridging as a volunteer.
“It was awesome because I was on the other side. I never thought I’d be OK, be in a position where I could help people,” she said. “It was an honor to be able to come back and work next to them.”