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Tackling poverty in nation's capital, one bed at a time

By Laura Klairmont, CNN
updated 3:19 PM EST, Fri February 28, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • For five years, Rita Taylor and her two daughters were homeless
  • A friend referred Taylor to A Wider Circle, a D.C.-area nonprofit
  • Mark Bergel founded A Wider Circle, which provides furniture and household goods
  • Do you know a hero? Nominations are open for 2014 CNN Heroes

Washington (CNN) -- Rita Taylor's heart used to break every time she put her two young daughters to bed.

For five years, Taylor and her children were homeless, sometimes sleeping in abandoned houses or cars.

When they finally moved into a home of their own, they had nothing to put in it, and Taylor's girls were sleeping on the floor.

"As a mother, I felt like I let my kids down, and that bothered me," Taylor said. "I felt like I was failing my kids."

When a friend referred Taylor to an organization called A Wider Circle, all that changed. The D.C.-area nonprofit helps furnish the homes of impoverished families -- for free.

"There's no stability and there's no dignity when you live in apartments that have nothing in them," said Mark Bergel, the organization's founder.

Bergel gave his own bed to A Wider Circle in 2008 and vows to sleep on his couch until everyone in the U.S. has a bed.
Bergel gave his own bed to A Wider Circle in 2008 and vows to sleep on his couch until everyone in the U.S. has a bed.

Since 2001, Bergel and his group have assisted more than 125,000 people throughout Washington by providing furniture, household goods and life skills workshops.

Thanks to A Wider Circle, Taylor now tucks her daughters, Genora, 7, and Anna, 1, into beds of their own each night. Genora has a desk where she does her homework, and the girls have a cabinet full of books for Taylor to read to them.

"Once we get their homes furnished they have a chance to just take a breath and start to create a different life," said Bergel, 51.

Despair in the shadows

Behind the stately monuments and pristine Capitol Hill, Washington is plagued by hardship and despair. More than 18% of the city's residents live in poverty .

Bergel witnessed the need firsthand 13 years ago as a volunteer distributing food to families around the city.

"Most apartments had nothing but a chair. People were storing their clothes in plastic garbage bags. There was nowhere for them to eat their meals. There was nothing that would give these people a sense of hope, a sense of dignity," he said.

Today, Bergel's group operates two warehouses stocked with furniture, linens, clothing and toys, where families can pick out the items they need.

"We can be a family again, have a home again, come together again," Taylor said. "Now my kids can pursue their dreams, their goals."

From poverty to possibility

Most apartments had nothing but a chair. People were storing their clothes in plastic garbage bags.
Mark Bergel

For families like Taylor's, A Wider Circle also provides long-term assistance through workshops on topics such as job readiness, financial planning and nutrition.

"Most people are in poverty because they were born into it," Bergel said. "The best way for them to get out of poverty is through support."

Do you know a hero? Nominations are open for 2014 CNN Heroes

The group's Well Mother, Well Baby program helps low-income teen mothers learn about newborn care, positive parenting and financial management. They are also paired with mentors. In addition, the program equips new mothers with cribs, changing tables, strollers and other items to help them raise healthy children.

"My goal is to help people find the hope that was missing in their lives, and to see the opportunities that are before them," Bergel said.

The power of a bed

For Bergel, it's personal. After donating his bed to A Wider Circle six years ago, he has slept most nights on his couch. He vows to sleep without a bed until every person in the United States has one of their own.

"I'm able to tell the hundreds of people who reach out to us for assistance each day -- and have been sleeping on the bare floor for years -- that I know how hard it is and mean it," he said.

Bergel would like to expand his services nationwide and says he won't feel satisfied until his group has helped all families in need. He works 15-hour days, seven days a week.

"I want to help create the change that will enable people to rise out of poverty and enjoy the freedom and independence afforded to others," he said. "Poverty is a human problem, and human beings will solve it."

Want to get involved? Check out the A Wider Circle website at www.awidercircle.org and see how to help.

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