Flint, MI—When was the last time you didn’t own a bed?
Never? Maybe a few days?
For some, the luxury of having a bed frame, box spring, and mattress is just that, a luxury. That’s what Debra Hawley found out when she joined the St. Francis Prayer Center in Flint, Mich. as its director in 2012.
The prayer center was founded nearly 50 years ago in 1973, and by the time Hawley joined, the center was already well established as a food pantry and community outreach center. For this reason, Hawley quickly became used to daily visits from those in need of resources like food as well as spiritual guidance.
It was through one-on-one prayer sessions, Hawley said, that she came to hear many people share similar stories regarding not having a proper space for sleeping.
“People would come to the center for one reason or another…I ended up praying one-on-one with people and I really got a chance to listen. I listened to stories of their lives and I would innocently ask ‘what can I do for you, how can I help you?’ Then people started sharing that their child didn’t have a bed. Then I’d find out the parents didn’t have a bed and they really didn’t have a stitch of furniture in their house,” Hawley said.
In the coming months, Hawley continued hearing more and more of these stories. Around the same time, an old Ford van was donated to the center. It was then that Hawley, with the help of a rotating door of volunteers started acquiring donated mattresses, box springs, bed frame and sheet sets. She and her volunteers would wash everything and deliver it to those in need.
Hawley said it was difficult getting a hold of and transporting furniture around the city. With mattress donations not being the most conventional of ways to do outreach and with so many other issues facing the community the center served, Hawley said she didn’t know how sustainable this new service would be.
On a day like any other, Hawley got all the confirmation she needed that what she was doing was the right thing.
“One day in prayer, I’m walking the building and just seeking God’s heart in all of this, why I was brought here and I distinctly heard in my heart ‘get my children off the floor.’ I didn’t really quite understand that until a few days later…for the wealth that we have in this country, these children do not need to be sleeping on the floor. At that point I realized God was calling us to this particular thing,” Hawley said.
To reach the community and supply beds to as many people as possible, the prayer center would need to build a robust network of transport, storage, potential donors and volunteers.
That’s just what they did. In the nearly 10 years since Hawley’s realization of the need for beds in the community, the center has provided thousands of beds to community members.
The success of this project led to what is now known at the prayer center as the Bed Ministry. It is one of their largest outreach endeavors, if not it’s largest, next to their food pantry. They also provide a healing ministry and an Adopt-a-Family program.
In 2020 Central Michigan University prepared to renovate its dorms and offered the prayer center around 800 beds, Hawley said. Similarly, hotels like the Hampton Inn who routinely remodel their rooms have also donated nearly 500 beds at a time.
Getting ahold of these beds was just half of the work. Storing, delivering, and assembling the beds again came next.
For this Hawley turned to the Knights of Columbus, more specifically, to Grand Blanc native Joe Buffa and his team of volunteers who soon came to be known as the Bed Boys.
Between the 10 or so regular volunteers, Buffa said beds are being either picked up, stored or dropped off nearly seven days a week, a far departure from what Buffa originally signed up for when he started volunteering 3 years ago.
“When I started helping out here they were doing it like one day a month and then we went to one day a week and it’s kind of grown. The need has always been there but we just didn’t always have the resources,” Buffa said.
According to him, Bed Ministry oversaw the delivery of 570 beds in 2020. This includes a frame, box spring and mattress.
Buffa fought back against the assumption that if someone lives in an apartment or a house, they must have a bed. He recalled one experience in late 2020 that further solidified that idea.
“We delivered to a family that had older teenagers between the ages of 15 and 17 … we gave them their first beds ever,” Buffa said.
While it’s not the norm, he did mention meeting younger children between six and nine without beds is relatively common.
“You have a variety of reasons for why that can happen but what matters to us is that the demand is still there,” Buffa said.
Buffa explained that people end up needing beds for a variety of reasons. It could be a house fire, an eviction where a homeowner’s possessions are lost, or an individual or a family suddenly needing to take in a dead relative’s children.
On top of beds, the Bed Ministry also acquires and delivers furniture like dressers, lamps, bedside tables and whatever else one may expect to find in a bedroom.
All of this requires storage, Buffa said. According to him, there are currently 7 locations scattered across the country filled with mattresses and other furniture ready to be delivered by the Bed Boys.
Heather Kale, a first-time donor to Bed Ministry and General Manager of the Ferris Wheel in downtown Flint, said she did not know that program existed until a friend suggested she donate the old mattress she was looking to get rid of to the prayer center.
“I spoke to Deb (Hawley) and two days later four retired guys showed up in a big old truck and took away the mattress,” Kale said.
Kale, who’s job includes connecting different organizations in Flint and helping them thrive, said she was surprised she hadn’t identified that need in the community before.
“I fancy myself a pretty well-informed person in the community and a connector, and the fact I had no idea this was a thing…was a real eye opener. Kids are sleeping on the floor or on top of milk crates with a piece of plywood as a mattress,” Kale said.
Though it is early in the process, Kale said she is working now to find one large storage area where the prayer center can keep its mattresses and accompanying furniture. They currently have 274.
“I mean, imagine how much time you spend sleeping…I think it says a lot about our community that everyone has their ear to the ground and is always trying to identify where the gaps are and what the needs are…I think it falls upon the community to make those connections and let people know that there is help and that there are people here that care and what to give them a hand,” Kale said.
For those in need or those looking to donate, St. Francis Prayer Center can be reached at 810-787-5330 or you can visit their location at G-2381 E Carpenter Road in Flint.