Nicole Bjerkness owned one piece of furniture — an old mattress — when she moved into a new apartment after finishing drug rehab.
She and her 1-year-old son shared the mattress at bedtime and they sat on the floor for meals.
There, she found a comfortable secondhand couch, clean beds, a table for family meals and a renewed sense that she could live a normal life again.
"It was a life-changing event for me," said Bjerkness, who just celebrated one year of recovery and a promotion to manager at the grocery store where she works. "There were no judgments. Rather it was: How can we help you make your life better?"
Bridging, founded in Bloomington 31 years ago, is now trying to help even more people on fragile financial footing establish fully furnished homes.
The nonprofit, which also has a location in Roseville, has added more square footage to store more furnishings and give clients additional room to browse. It has increased the number of social service and nonprofit partners who refer clients to more than 170. Now, they're seeking more volunteers, as well as furniture and housewares donations to keep their warehouses well-stocked.
"In 2015, we shopped 4,299 families. This year we are on track for 4,550," said Bridging Executive Director Mark Wilkening.
To serve that many families, Bridging needs the equivalent of 14 semitrailer trucks of donations each week, said Diana Dalsin, community relations manager. Donations tend to trickle off with the cold weather, so they have increased efforts to spread the word.
"We want there to be a dignity of choice. We want variety so they have more than one to select from," Dalsin said.
More than 90 percent of Bridging clients earn less than $20,000 a year. They come from all backgrounds and circumstances.
Some have lost jobs and homes battling illness and paying medical bills. Some are fleeing family violence. Some are veterans. Many are working-class people struggling to make ends meet, Dalsin said.
"They are one crisis away from being in need," Dalsin said.
More than half of the families Bridging serves were homeless in the past year.
Furnishings with hope
The 85 families that come through Bridging each week leave with a bed, pillows, sheets, blankets and enough living and dining room seating for everyone in each family. They also receive dishes, silverware, small appliances, lamps, dressers — even art to hang on the wall.
"We set up that whole household with everything they need," Dalsin said.
On average, those basic goods would cost $1,800 at thrift stores.
"There are wonderful stories of young people getting a bed for the first time," Dalsin said. "Many clients said it made them feel normal again. We furnish homes with hope."
This week, clients accompanied by volunteers browsed the aisles of the Roseville warehouse. It's bright, neatly sorted by category and smells fresh — unlike that musty smell often associated with secondhand items.
Machinist Earl Lovelace, who recently relocated from South Dakota to the Twin Cities to be near his three sons, took his time selecting a couch, rug and bedding, mostly in neutral hues.
"It took me by surprise. I didn't know it would be this much stuff," said Lovelace, 29.
He had a job lined up and an apartment rented before the move, but then broke his ankle during a basketball game. The injury kept him from starting the job on time. An Anoka County nonprofit referred him to Bridging.
Around the warehouse, 40 volunteers sorted and repackaged donations, repaired donated furniture and appliances and packaged up the items clients selected.
Ann and Winston Bateman volunteer every Monday. Three generations of the Bateman family, including their teenage granddaughter, volunteer at Bridging. Winston Bateman said he appreciates that Bridging works only with clients referred by partner agencies and nonprofits, ensuring the items are going to those truly in need.
He packed up dishes, but said his favorite job is helping clients shop.
"They are just thrilled," Bateman said. "That makes you feel so good."