Growing up during the Depression in a family that was “dirt poor,” Fran Heitzman learned an inviolable lesson: No matter how little food the family had, if someone came to the door hungry, they shared it.

“It’s inbred in me,” he said of helping people in need. “It’s in my DNA.”

Hetizman, who turned 91 Saturday, is a bundle of perpetual motion who spends six days a week volunteering at Bridging, a nonprofit organization he started in 1987 to provide furniture to the needy who were establishing homes. He started with one donated crib while working out of a room in his church; now Bridging has warehouses in Bloomington and Roseville and has partnered with 143 local and national agencies to provide furnishings — everything from sofas to dinner plates — for more than 100 families a week.

“Don’t tell me you can’t make a difference,” he said. “When good people get together to do good work, good things happen.”

Even though Bridging’s offices are closed on Sundays, Heitzman doesn’t take the day off. He spends it speaking at churches and other civic organizations to drum up support — and donations.

“This isn’t rocket science: Everybody’s got stuff they don’t use, so give it to someone who needs it,” said the former small business owner, who jokes that he started Bridging after “I failed at retirement.” (The organization’s website, bridging.org, lists the most needed items.)

“When you help Bridging, you stand with me,” he said. “I couldn’t do this without you.”

He gets misty-eyed when he talks about some of the people Bridging has helped, including a young boy who announced that he was excited because he finally was going to be able to sleep in a bed. “He’d been sleeping on a coat thrown on the floor,” Heitzman said, shaking his head. “That breaks my heart.”

There are nearly 400 volunteers who work at least one day a week in the warehouses, front office, wood shop (which makes small furniture repairs) or electric shop (every appliance must be tested for safety). Heitzman makes rounds through the facility, offering encouragement to everyone he encounters.

“He’s the heart and soul of the operation,” executive director Mark Wilkening said. “He inspires all of us. His dedication is like no other.”

Heitzman’s wife of 67 years, Jeanne, died two years ago. But the loss has only spurred him on to make the most of his time.

“I don’t know how many days I have left to keep walking on this Earth,” he said. “My philosophy is to get out and do it.”

 

Minnspirations is a regular column about Minnesotans who inspire and move us.