Get Out and Give Back: Circle of Compassion

by WL Author

It’s not just A Wider Circle’s free furniture and classes that move families out of poverty. It’s creating a community.
By Jane Hess Collins

Catherine and Ike Leggett accept A Wider Circle's 2011 Leadership Award.

Deputy director Dr. Anne Thompson’s favorite part about working for A Wider Circle is when she can’t distinguish the clients from the volunteers from the staff. That pretty much sums up the inclusive, family atmosphere of the organization.

The place was buzzing when I arrived. Interns, staff, volunteers and families were loading a houseful of furniture onto a truck, a giving circle from Maryland was sorting baby clothes on the second floor and a new family who had just moved into Section 8 housing from homelessness was selecting furnishings.

Barbara de Boinville, a volunteer for nearly eight years, returns week after week to help out because the clients are, in her words, so appreciative. “They cry tears of joy when they get bed sheets,” she said, getting a little choked up herself.

Each month A Wider Circle furnishes the homes of over 1,000 children and adults, with the support and help of 280 social service agencies. How does this small, Catalogue for Philanthropy nonprofit stay so busy?

Simple. “We say ‘yes’ to everything,” said Dr. Mark Bergel, A Wider Circle’s founder and executive director and author of the upcoming book What is Possible (projected release February 2012). He was inspired to create A Wider Circle ten years ago in response to the growing need for both external (furniture, food) and internal (financial counseling, self-esteem classes) support to the area’s families in need.

“We are only as healthy as the least healthy among us,” said Bergel, who’s been recognized both locally and nationally for his expertise on issues of poverty, health and social connection. It doesn’t take long to discover that Bergel inhabits his role. He’s slept on donated couches intentionally to understand the difference between a night of rest on a bed (good) and a couch (not so much). “When I first started I thought it was OK to give someone a couch who needed a bed,” he said. “Now I know not to do that.”

I felt a little guilty talking with him, pretty sure that I would never give up my creature comforts, as he has, to empathize and experience the lives of his clients. Simultaneously, I felt a tranquility in his presence, something I encountered pnly once before, ten years ago, while sitting in the Birla Lakshmi Narayan Temple in Jaipur.

All it takes, Bergel believes, is to think big and have the courage to make the commitment. Both he and Thompson, a former child psychologist, work seven days a week. Although he misses simple pleasures like movies and dinners out, Bergel knows he is where he is meant to be.

Kim Schifrin, Barbara de Boinville and Joan Levy sort baby clothes for A Wider Circle.

And he’s not buying that poverty can’t be solved in America. “We do what we believe we can do,” he said. Ending poverty is not a controversial or divisive topic, he added, as was slavery and suffrage, yet both of those practices were ultimately abolished. “No one is willing to die [as they were in the fight for civil rights] to keep the poor impoverished,” he insisted. Bergel has noticed a public consciousness shift toward abolishing poverty, although he vows to keep working until every child has the opportunity to succeed in the National Capitol Region.

Over 300 people, including clients, attended last month’s ten-year anniversary gala. Bergel likened the atmosphere to that of a family gathering, full of warmth and love.

Definitely not your typical gala.

A Wider Circle’s volunteer needs are listed here, but according to Thompson, their primary volunteer need is help with picking up donated furniture during weekdays. They have the trucks and drivers-they need a few more big hearts, big biceps and strong quads.

Other big-hearted needs include volunteers to serve as mentors and teach life skills and self-esteem beginning in January.

Six-pack abs are optional.

Jane Hess Collins helps and encourages people to give back through her volunteering, writing, speaking, coaching and workshops. You can follow her other Get Out and Give Back volunteer stories on Facebook, Twitter and her website. If you’d like her to volunteer with your organization, contact her here.

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