The founder of Bloomington nonprofit Bridging will receive a lifetime achievement award this month.
Fran Heitzman sleeps well at night, knowing almost 60,000 families are sleeping on beds because of him.
Over the past 25 years, the 87-year-old founder of Bridging -- a nonprofit that brings together donors and people in need -- has ensured that needy families receive donated furniture and household goods that otherwise might have gone unused.
"That's a good reason to get up in the morning," Heitzman said.
This month, Heitzman will receive a lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging and the Metlife Foundation for his outstanding contributions to the community. In 2006, the association gave him an Older Volunteers Enrich America award for being a "community champion."
The organizations are recognizing Heitzman and eight other past winners of the Older Volunteers award for their lifetime achievements. The nine will be honored for significant and far-reaching civic service contributions made since their previous awards, said Maria Gonzales-Jackson, program manager of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging.
Heitzman founded Bridging in 1987 after a local woman tried to give a crib to Pax Christi Catholic Church, where Heitzman worked as a maintenance man.
Pax Christi had no room for the crib, but Heitzman found a charity that was "overjoyed" to receive it. Soon Heitzman, a former business owner who was then semi-retired, began collecting donations from congregants to give to families who needed it.
"This is no rocket scientist idea," he said.
Now Bridging has warehouses in Roseville and Bloomington. It relies on donations from the public and companies like Target that donate discontinued merchandise. About 150 agencies like the Salvation Army send clients to Bridging each year.
"We ain't little anymore," Heitzman said.
Growing up during the Depression
Heitzman grew up in Bloomington during the Great Depression, when everyone was "dirt poor," he said. "Nobody had anything."
He said he learned about sharing from his mother. When the family collected potatoes from a nearby field, they always shared with people who came by.
Heitzman and volunteers in his generation understand the concept of not having anything and sharing with others, said Bridging Executive Director Sara Sternberger. They also learned the value of reusing things. "That's what you did. You saved your aluminum foil," she said.
After hearing a family talk about having to share a spoon, Heitzman gathered up one-fourth of all the silverware at his house and brought it to Bridging. He said his wife of 65 years, Jean, didn't notice for a year and a half that the utensils were gone.
"It was stuff I never missed," she said. "We didn't need it, really."
Friends and family describe Heitzman as a man of action. "He's got such a big heart and he knows how to use it," said former Pax Christi pastor Tim Power.
'Strange things started to happen'
Bridging began as a parish ministry at Pax Christi, but it "needed [its] own home" to blossom, said Power, a current Bridging board member and longtime friend of Heitzman's.
Plus, "strange things started to happen" at the church. A stove was missing, Power said. It turned out Heitzman had given it away to a young couple who needed it.
"Things would just start disappearing," Power said.
Heitzman left his maintenance job at Pax Christi in 1990 to work full-time for Bridging. The agency phone was located in Heitzman's home for the first eight years, when Jean Heitzman said she fielded about 25 phone calls a day.
Heitzman has always cared deeply about helping others, his wife said. When he owned a dry-cleaning company, she said, he would donate unclaimed clothing three times a year to people in need. She said he's won so many awards over the years that she can't keep track.
Heitzman, she said, can't wait to get to Bridging each morning. He works there about seven hours each day.
"We'd never dreamt we'd still be doing this at our age," Jean said. "We just can't comprehend what has happened up there. It's just exploded."
Shopping for furniture
More than 75 families visit Bridging's furniture banks each week, choosing pieces along aisles stacked four high with loveseats, dressers and other items.
Sternberger said the experience is "uplifting" for clients because volunteers treat them with respect and dignity.
"We could all be in the same spot they are in," Heitzman said.
While Heitzman talks passionately about being the bridge between families in need and those who have stuff to give away, it's the thought of kids without a bed that really tears him up.
"We can put men in a rocket and shoot them to the moon and we allow our little kids to sleep on their coat on the floor?" he said. "That's not right. We have to do better than that."
Bridging sends more than 8,000 beds home with families each year. Without the agency, many of those beds could have easily ended up in a landfill.
Sternberger said the idea of repurposing items resonates with younger generations, just as it did with Heitzman's generation.
Instead of "just chuck[ing] stuff into the garbage," furniture can and should be put to use by others," she said.
"Everybody's got stuff," Heitzman tells people. "Give it away. Give it to somebody who needs it."
Jill Jensen is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment for the Star Tribune.