If you’re lucky a night in November in Illinois is a little on the chilly side, more than likely temperatures will be near or below freezing temperatures. Bridge Communities, in an annual fundraising program “Sleep Our Saturday,” recruit some 2,000 DuPage County community members to spend a night outside sleeping in tents, boxes or cars. The event in its 14th year, does more than fund raise, it’s an empathy building experience for the community. Programming like “Sleep Out Saturday” helps Bridge Communities’ volunteers, donors, partners and staff understand the lives of those they hope to help, homeless families across the Chicago-land area.
Started in 1988 by Mark Milligan and Bob Wahlgren, Bridge Communities provides housing and intensive life-skills mentoring to homeless families in DuPage County west of Chicago, IL. Bridge Communities gives families the skills they need to create a stable life and find permanent housing. The organization began by simply housing one family in an apartment for three months and has since expanded to a 100 apartment housing campus in Glendale Heights, housing 127 families a year. Besides housing, mentoring and counseling, parents receive community support they once lacked, allowing families to save money, learn life skills, obtain better employment and find permanent housing.
Bridge families are required to have at least one child under the age of 18 and their families come in many different forms: intact (mother and father still together), single parents, grandparents or other guardians raising children. The majority of Bridge communities’ families are single mothers with half of their referrals coming from homeless victims of domestic abuse.
Bridge credits much of their success to the partnerships they have created through their near 30-year existence. Although Bridge is a secular organization, faith based partners in particular play a vital role in their work. Of the 50 program partners currently working with Bridge, well over 40 of them are churches or other religious organizations from throughout the predominately Christian county. Together they seek to find solutions and understanding of those struggling with homelessness.
As an organization, Bridge Communities’ would be unable to follow their mission if it were not for the support of partners. Program partners provide financial support, mentoring and more to their families. They donate collected furniture from their congregations to furnish the families housing. Members of religious organizations regularly utilize their networks to help Bridge families find work or locate much needed resources such as pro-bono doctors or lawyers. Perhaps most important is organization members serve as mentors with a Bridge client. Together they meet weekly to track the family’s budget, review schedules, assist with Bridge’s classes or workshops or discuss any challenges they are facing.
Like many successful nonprofit organizations, Bridge Communities most valuable asset is their volunteer base. The organization has some 300 volunteers putting in a few hours a week, equating to the work of what otherwise would have been done by two dozen employees. Quite literally, the work of the organization would not be possible without volunteers through their faith-based partnerships.
The relationship partner volunteers and Bridge Communities families create often goes beyond the two years they spend together. The experience leads to lasting relationships. Lisa Doyle, Communications Manager for Bridge Communities, says, “The mentors often become like a family to the client…often the friendships last long after the client has graduated from the Bridge Program.”
What explains the unique partnership of Bridge Communities as a secular organization with the dozens of religious communities throughout DuPage County? Doyle believes that the success of those partnerships start with a shared common mission, empathy, which transcends religion. Bridge Communities and those in the faith based organizations have a deep desire to see their communities improve. Doyle, explains “I think one main reason that churches partner with us is because there is often a yearning in their congregation to do more to put their faith into action. There are so many kindhearted people in their pews each Sunday who want to live their faith wholeheartedly, inspire change, and make a real difference for those in need.”
While Bridge Communities and their partner organizations may be coming from different places, ultimately they strive to accomplish the same goal. By attempting to understand what homeless families in their community are going through, they can hope to better serve their affected populations. Whether that be staying out all night on a freezing November evening, donating furniture or serving as a family mentor. Bridge Communities and their partners use the empathy to understand, learn and help families find their way home.
Lisa Doyle is the communications manager of Bridge Communities. She has been working in the nonprofit field for the past decade, working for DuPage County organizations dedicated to social justice and ending poverty.
Jack Ahern is a Masters of Public Administration student focusing on nonprofit management at NC State University.