Twenty five years ago, Fran Heitzman opened a free store in the basement of Pax Christi Church in Eden Prairie for folks who needed clothes, food and furniture .
It quickly became apparent that offering a little bit of everything didn't solve much of anything. So he and other parishioners decided to focus on donated furniture -- an odd charity niche at the time.
They never dreamed they'd be around a quarter of a century later. Or that they'd become a national model of a "furniture bank,'' a term that didn't even exist in 1987.
But this month, the nonprofit that evolved from Heitzman's work -- called Bridging -- served its 60,000th customer. It now has warehouses in Roseville and Bloomington where folks referred by more than 100 social service agencies choose couches and tables and chairs to rebuild their lives.
"We're now the biggest supplier of [free] furniture in North America,'' said Heitzman, an energetic 87-year-old who still volunteers at the warehouses.
"And we've been instrumental in at least 10 other cities setting up similar programs,'' he said, from Columbus, Ohio, to Sioux Falls, S.D., to Mesa, Ariz.
Heitzman, a retired owner of a landscape business, was a pioneer in recognizing a critical need for low-income folks. While food shelves and food programs could help fill their cupboards, there was no guarantee they had pots and pans to cook with or a table to sit down and eat at.
As he reflects on Bridging's work, Heitzman said he's most proud of the huge number of people served, from about 100 that first year to 12,000 a year today.
Plus re-using donated furniture has prevented 128 million pounds of landfill, staff said.
But Heitzman looks at the children in the waiting room at Bridging and wonders why, 25 years later, there are still so many there.
"Why is it that we allow children to sleep on the floor, but we can send a rocket to the moon?'' he asked.
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511