A Wider Circle: Furnishing homes and lives

Alex Beall, special to wtop.com

WASHINGTON – Several years ago, former American University health professor Mark Bergel was bringing food to a low-income family when he noticed just how little the family had in its possession.

The family lacked furniture and necessities that could potentially prepare them for the workforce and for the job application process.

Bergel wanted to do something to break this cycle of poverty he witnessed. So in 2001, he founded A Wider Circle, a Silver Spring-based organization that provides furniture, clothing and job training to low-income families in the D.C. area.

“I was sick and tired of seeing people living in conditions not at a level people in this country should tolerate, especially in our nation’s capital,” Bergel says.

He began providing furniture out of his Bethesda apartment, storing the furniture in garages, basements and spare rooms offered by others. The organization grew with the support of Montgomery County and its community until it was able to move into its current location.

“It was really the old story of a person starting an organization in their basement,” Bergel says.

So far, A Wider Circle has helped more than 110,000 people. The organization’s set-up provides participating families with its services in a way that reflects a conventional shopping atmosphere.

Furniture is displayed in typical room arrangements, much like an IKEA display. Racks and walls are filled with clothes, similar to other clothing retailers.

Bergel says the environment of A Wider Circle is important to its mission.

“People in poverty often don’t get the respect and dignity they deserve, so it must reflect respect and dignity,” says Bergel.

One thing that makes the organization such a success is its ability to connect with the clients and families it serves on a personal level. To execute this mission, A Wider Circle created an advisory board comprised of individuals who benefited from the organization’s services in the past.

Kenya London is one such a woman.

London, a survivor of domestic abuse, and her daughter, had nothing when they moved into their new apartment from the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center. The shelter referred her to A Wider Circle, where she began receiving help about a year ago.

“It was like they were working for me and I felt like they cared,” says London, who received home furnishings through A Wider Circle. “(A Wider Circle) encouraged me to help others actually and boosted my self- esteem.”

Clients of the organization are reviewed on a case-by-case basis; there are no specific qualifications that need to be met. Family services agencies can refer clients to A Wider Circle, or clients can contact the organization, directly.

The public can get involved with the organization by donating furniture and clothing, sponsoring events and programs, offering advice and new ideas and dedicating time to work at the Silver Spring location. In 2012, more than 10,000 volunteers donated their time at A Wider Circle.

“(Poverty is) people living without rights with no freedom or independence,” Bergel says. “Ending poverty is possible when we think we can do it.”

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