Blazer volunteers widen the circle of giving

Nov. 11, 2010, 2:18 p.m. | By Stella Bartholet | 9 years, 8 months ago

With Bethesda non-profit, students help local families in need

A sofa or bedside table can easily be taken for granted. But at A Wider Circle, a non-profit organization in Bethesda, furniture has the power to change lives - including the lives of Blair students.

A Wider Circle is devoted to providing basic household items to people in need, including families transitioning out of shelters and women suffering from domestic violence. Local area residents donate money and unwanted furniture, which the organization then uses to outfit homes of the needy. A Wider Circle believes that by furnishing these homes, families will feel more hopeful about their situation and find a way out of poverty.

The organization opens the eyes of Blair volunteers to devastating conditions within their community and to the courage of people who face such challenges. They learn about poverty in local areas, allowing them to encounter people living and overcoming situations very different from their own.

The founding father

Mark Bergel, director and founder of A Wider Circle, created the organization in 2001, after he had his own epiphany about poverty. While volunteering in the Washington, D.C. area, he saw homes without beds, forcing families to sleep on the floors. Witnessing these demoralizing conditions made him feel the need to do more.

After talking with social workers, shelter managers and non-profit leaders about how he could help, Bergel decided to open A Wider Circle. The organization has furnished over 7,000 homes and helped over 50,000 people. The big warehouse that serves as a headquarters in Bethesda holds dozens of pieces of furniture, and boxes of toys, tableware and clothing. Volunteers work together carrying furniture and sorting through children's books. Clients roam around the warehouse selecting pieces of furniture that they would like to take home.

A different side of life

Blazers who volunteer at the warehouse are exposed to different experiences. Junior Samantha Schweickhardt believes that volunteering has broadened her perspective on the community. "I lived more sheltered, and I saw a different side of life," she says.

Prior to volunteering at A Wider Circle, Schweickhardt had never worked with people who lived in such difficult conditions. "I think that they are extremely hopeful and it definitely takes some courage. The fact that they are attempting and pushing for a new life is very strong of them," she says.

Schweickhardt started by making gift baskets for a holiday toy drive, and now takes on different duties, such as loading furniture onto vehicles and organizing other household items. She finds that working directly with customers makes the experience different from volunteering at other charities. "At A Wider Circle you get to see who you are helping which makes it more satisfying and gratifying," she says.

Senior Josh Kickenson agrees that meeting the customers makes volunteering at A Wider Circle rewarding. He has been volunteering twice a week at the organization, moving furniture, steaming mattresses and loading trucks. A Wider Circle has shown him how much help people need in his local community. "I realized there was a lot of horrible stuff going on around the world, but I didn't realize how many people need help in this area," he says.

Success stories

Many of these people that Kickenson has met have inspirational stories. One of the most memorable customers was a woman in her fifties with more than ten children. After she selected all of the furniture she wanted, Kickenson was doubtful that everything would fit in the truck. But the woman soon proved him wrong. "She said, 'I've raised all these kids, I think I can figure out how to get everything in,'" Kickenson says. And somehow, she was able to fit the items onto her truck.

Bergel has witnessed many such stories, day after day. But one experience that will always be especially memorable for him is the story of a woman who turned her life around.

After Bergel hosted a series of stress management workshops for victims of domestic violence, he learned that one of his clients had moved out of a shelter into a home furnished by A Wider Circle. Soon, the woman found a job as a social worker, giving back. "She got a job helping other people reach a point of stability," he says.

Staff at A Wider Circle celebrates every such success story. But their aims are far more ambitious. They're captured in the words framed and mounted on Bergel's office wall: "A world with no poverty is not an idea. It is the only acceptable reality."

If you want to volunteer at A Wider Circle, email the organization at Those who would like to donate furniture or money can fill out the online donor form or mail the money to: A Wider Circle, 4808 Moorland Lane, Suite 802, Bethesda, MD 20814.

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