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This man won’t sleep in a bed. Not until everyone is able to have a mattress.

spirit of humanity

After learning that many poor people lack basic furniture in their homes, Mark Bergel founded the nonprofit A Wider Circle in Maryland to tackle poverty.

Mark Bergel talks with a colleague at his nonprofit, A Wider Circle, in Silver Spring, Md.
David Karas
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Caption
  • David Karas
    Correspondent

On a frigid winter morning, moving trucks and pickups are seen lining the driveway, waiting for staff to guide them into position near the loading area.  

Meanwhile, inside, more than a dozen adults and children are meandering through rows of couches, chairs, dressers, and mattresses, and others are looking at donated toys or a collection of business clothing that’s available.

It is a typical morning at A Wider Circle, a nonprofit in Silver Spring, Md., that takes a multilayered approach to tackling poverty – furnishing the homes of poor people, while also providing them with the tools to break free from such hardship.

Mark Bergel founded A Wider Circle in 2001. He understands well the importance of supplying furniture – something that can be neglected amid other pressing needs.

“The hardest thing to get if you’re in poverty is a stable home, and the second hardest thing to get is a bed,” Dr. Bergel says. “It is harder to get a table on which to put the food than it is to get the food. So we get 500 calls a day here, and the majority of calls are from people who don’t have the basic necessities of life.”

Lacking the basics can have wide ramifications. “It is really difficult to create change in your life if you don’t have the essentials,” Bergel says. “The lack of self-esteem and dignity that can easily grow from a life of poverty is best addressed by first giving people dignified, stable homes.”

Bergel, who earned his doctorate in sociology from American University, had an eye-opening experience when he was teaching at his alma mater in 2001. As part of one of his courses, Bergel encouraged his students to volunteer in the community, going as far as assigning 20 percent of their grade to such efforts and even serving alongside them.

“I found myself bringing food to people who were starving, or did not know how to feed their children,” he recalls. “Apartment after apartment, I saw people living with very few, if any, possessions. I was shocked.”

Especially after seeing pregnant women and children alike resting on the floor, he came to a painful realization about where those families would eat at home: “If families want to sit, and they don’t want to sit on the floor, then they eat in the bathroom because the toilet seat and the bathtub are the only things off the ground.”

Not long after his initial conversations with some of those he had helped, Bergel knew that he had discovered his true calling.

“It was very much an epiphany.... When I got the answer really clearly – to start an organization to address the conditions I was seeing – I cried, because I knew what my life was supposed to be about,” he says. A Wider Circle was soon launched in his apartment.

A sizable operation

Today, more than 400 government agencies and nonprofits refer clients to A Wider Circle, which employs 50 people, draws some 15,000 volunteers each year, and is in the process of expanding its Silver Spring hub. Bergel shepherds a sizable budget, with about $4 million in cash revenues in 2015 and almost $10 million more in furniture and other in-kind items.

A Wider Circle does not stop at furnishing the homes of poor people, however. Once those necessities are provided and clients have stabler home environments, the nonprofit focuses on intensive workforce development and educational support.

Workshops broach everything from financial literacy to nutrition and stress management. Those are complemented by a weeklong boot camp that takes participants through every phase of the job application process and also examines career development.

Following that program, all participants receive a job coach ready to stay with them for at least a year.

“I have never seen anyone get out of poverty without a job,” Bergel says. “The No. 1 reason people get out of poverty is that other people commit to them and commit to that journey with them. And so a job coach becomes a critical part of somebody getting out of poverty.”

Clients also receive a personal shopper as they browse an extensive collection of professional clothing. There’s no limit to what they can take, and – as with the organization’s other programs – there is no cost.

‘You are a part of their family’

Leslie Wesson, a formerly homeless Navy veteran, is a recent beneficiary of A Wider Circle. After being referred to the nonprofit, she received furniture for her apartment and participated in the employment boot camp.

“I have been thoroughly blessed by A Wider Circle,” Ms. Wesson says. “It was life-changing.... I am still realizing the impact on my life.”

Wesson, who was offered a job shortly after completing the program, also benefited from the professional clothing collection. While initially there wasn’t anything in her size, it didn’t take long for the nonprofit to put together a range of items that she could choose from.

“I feel the love [there].... It is like you are a part of their family,” she says. “They are definitely interested in each person they come in contact with.”

Wesson also recalls meeting Bergel, noting his friendly and committed demeanor.

“He is very approachable, [and] he is a generous soul,” she says. “He is not just trying to give you a way out; he is giving you the tools to get out of poverty, and stay out forever.”

Wesson’s story is just one of many. Each year, A Wider Circle furnishes homes for some 16,000 adults and children, and it helps more than 2,500 adults through workforce development support. Although participants live mainly in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., the nonprofit doesn’t turn anyone away.

Another furniture recipient, Ed Nunez, is a disabled veteran living in Laurel, Md. When he returned from Afghanistan, he was getting divorced, which left him on his own and with few possessions.

“I took my suitcases and proceeded to seek a place to live,” he says in an email interview.

He found his way to A Wider Circle, which helped make his new apartment a home.

“Although I am still unemployed, I can say that I have a bed and some furniture and some dishes,” he says. “I believe that it was a miracle.”

‘A real social justice issue’

In a recent conversation with the Monitor, Bergel discussed how difficult it can be to get out of poverty.

“People aren’t lazy; it’s not that they don’t want to work,” he says. “It is that they are born into poverty, and it is really hard to get out.... It’s a real social justice issue.”

Bergel takes his work seriously – and has made it personal. About nine years ago he gave up his own bed, determined to sleep on his couch or the floor until everyone has a mattress.

“I just wanted to make sure that I didn’t get comfortable when so many other people in our midst are not comfortable,” he says. “I live pretty simply, but at the same time I still have it easy.”

In addition, Bergel works seven days a week, an average of about 15 hours a day. At the heart of that dedication, he explains, is seeing his own loved ones in those who are suffering.

“Every one person who is in poverty is my brother or sister,” he says. “I don’t think any day that goes by with people in poverty is a successful day for us. The truth is that millions of people are suffering, and we could solve that if people really committed.”

How to take action

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups helping children and families:

OneSky creates and implements early learning programs aimed at unlocking the potential of vulnerable young children. Take action: Send developmental toys to a Chinese orphanage.

Operation USA aids children and families in the wake of natural disasters and other challenges. Take action: Support nutrition programs at a school in Haiti.

Adopt International has adoption placement services and also focuses on children remaining in institutional care. Take action: Donate to the Healthy Family Program, which offers post-adoption services.

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