Sarah Nielsen appreciates a good night’s sleep. But that’s not why she had 1,632 new pillows stuffed into her father’s garage last month.

The pillows were among 10,000 donated this spring through an unusual corporate giving project led by Coldwell Banker Burnet and its metro area offices. Staff and supporters collected new pillows for low-income families served by Bridging, a huge Twin Cities nonprofit offering household furnishings to those in need.

“It was crazy,” laughed Nielsen. “We had bags and bags of pillows, cases and cases. My dad has a three-car garage, and when we brought the pillows down [from storage], they took up two full stalls.”

The so-called Pillow Fight Challenge marked its fifth year in March, evolving from a let’s-see-how-it goes idea that brought in 2,000 pillows its first year — to an annual employee competition that now has donated 28,000 head rests.

Bridging specifically asked Coldwell Banker Burnett, one of its longtime corporate sponsors, to be its pillow purveyor, said Diana Dalsin, Bridging’s community relations manager. The nonprofit, which outfits entire apartments for about 4,000 families a year, found that Minnesotans were donating plenty of lamps, chairs, towels and other households. But fresh pillows were a missing link.

“It’s the gift of a good night’s sleep,” said Dalsin. “Without that, how do you go to work, go to school?”

And it’s a gift of dignity, Dalsin added, as the pillows are brand-new and not “a something’s better than nothing.”

But this gift is also bulky. Walk into Coldwell Burnett offices during the month of March, and you’re likely to spot pillows stacked in lobbies, spare offices, conference rooms. It was a source of pride, and sometimes a bit of a headache.

For example, Diane Jentilucci of the Wayzata office was involved in the pillow collection a couple of years ago.

“Yours truly had to count them, and I never got the same answer twice,” Jentilucci said with a laugh. “We’d line them up in the hall, and they’d slip and slide all over the place.”

Likewise, Bridging had a hard time finding spare shelves for thousands of pillows trucked in on one day. So this year, it arranged for easy online giving. About half of the 10,000 pillows donated came in the form of money to buy them, said Roxanne Stark, a member of the Coldwell Banker Burnet Foundation advisory committee who oversaw the project.

The program has been fine- tuned in other ways. The Carver County company offices initially bought out every pillow at Wal-Mart, prompting the store to ask them for advance notice of the binge buying. Other offices discovered the benefits of buying entire cases of pillows, not yet unpacked on retail shelves, which took up far less space.

And employees have found that their contractors, customers and broader communities are ready to pitch in. Said Nieman: “We had a great response from agents, friends, clients. Even local businesses donated money.”

This year’s pillow-palooza occurred as Bridging moved into a new 75,000-square-foot building in Roseville. The nonprofit still owes $700,000 of the $4 million on that building, and will launch the final leg of its fundraising campaign in May, Dalsin said.

It’s come a long way from a modest furniture donor started three decades ago.

“Ten years ago, we could hardly provide a pillow per family,” said Dalsin. “Now we have a pillow per head. Most of us take a pillow for granted, but for a person making $15,000 a year, buying a pillow is a big deal.”


Jean Hopfensperger