A Guide to Giving

A Closer Look at A Wider Circle

A Wider Circle

Helping the poor get a good night’s sleep (and more) 

“If you can get a decent night’s sleep,” Mark Bergel says, “you’ve got a shot at creating change.” Photo credit: Michael VenturaMark Bergel pats the stack of mattresses in a bustling brick warehouse off Brookville Road in Silver Spring and smiles. “You’re looking at gold,” he says, as if he literally has a load of bullion at his fingertips.

For the 48-year-old Bethesda resident, those mattresses represent more than sleep support. They’re life support.

“The people who…have nothing, that number is growing, and all of those people have no beds, no dressers, no tables and chairs,” says Bergel, founder and executive director of A Wider Circle, a nonprofit organization that meets basic needs for families struggling with poverty.

“They barely have food in their homes. But they all call here looking for beds,” he says, “because if you can get a decent night’s sleep, you’ve got a shot at creating change.”

Bergel was teaching at American University when he started A Wider Circle in October 2001. Moved by the poverty he saw while delivering food for a local nonprofit, he named his organization after Albert Einstein’s famous plea for “widening our circle of compassion.”

Today, Bergel’s circle encompasses 21,000 square feet brimming with donated furniture, clothing and nonperishable foods. He estimates the organization serves 15 to 20 families a day.

It employs eight full-time and seven part-time workers, as well as interns and volunteers, who vet potential recipients and provide money management and interviewing skills.

Montgomery County resident Michelle Alonso, a mother of four, turned to A Wider Circle when she finally found housing after a period of homelessness. The organization provided furniture, kitchen utensils, bedding and something more: “It made me feel more independent,” Alonso says.

Last year, Major League Baseball, People magazine and the Washington Nationals recognized Bergel in their “All-Stars Among Us” campaign. In July 2010, he got to rub elbows with some of baseball’s biggest stars during All-Star Game festivities in Anaheim, Calif.

“It was great to connect with the guys you never see except on television,” Bergel says.

Looking around A Wider Circle’s warehouse, Bergel equates fighting poverty to the civil rights movement and women’s suffrage.

“If we let poverty endure, we lose generation after generation,” he says, snapping his fingers on the word generation. “We better get going. We can end poverty,” he says. “Of course, we can do it if we care enough. That’s what this is about, caring enough.”

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