By Joli Doornink It only takes a moment to change a life forever.
For Sharon and Al Bergren, that moment came only three months after they were married.
He was on his way home one night and was about to make a left turn when another vehicle hit him from behind.
“It hit him so hard that it pushed him from a dead stop one whole block ahead,” Sharon said.
“He was flat on his back for over a year,” Sharon said. Al, a Class “A” welder, was unable to work for that period of time, and his medical bills began piling up. The couple couldn’t get any help from welfare right away since they made too much money the year before to qualify.
“We ended up selling just about everything we had,” Sharon said.
When the couple did qualify for welfare, they volunteered to receive the food stamps they needed so that they could get enough food for themselves and their two toddlers.
That’s when they heard about the Union Gospel Mission.
“I was volunteering [at the Mission] four hours a day,” Al said. He volunteered there for three months. After going back to welding for a short time, he received a call from the Mission.
“They asked if I’d come back and be the driver and security at night,” Al said.
He accepted the position and is now the superintendent. “I just fell in love with the place, with what I was doing,” he said.
After being unable to find a position as a certified medical assistant, Sharon became the office manager at the Mission.
She has now been there for 14 years, and her office shows it. While sitting at her computer, she can look up to see pictures of her family on a cupboard door. The bulletin board to the left displays a picture of Jesus, the CMA license she doesn’t use, and a poster that reads, “Life is what happens to us while we are busy making other plans.”
That office is where she takes care of business operations. Among everything she does, she is often a spokesperson for the Mission.
“The call me the Mission mouth,” Sharon said.
She and Al help people on a daily basis who are in the same position that they were in, and they love it.
Sharon remembers an instance that stands out in her mind. She tries not to cry as she recalls them.
One day, a woman walked in the building and just broke down in tears.
“She was on her way home from the doctor’s,” Sharon said. “She found out she had a brain tumor. Her husband was in school and she had three kids at home, and she was trying to find the courage to go home and tell them about the tumor.”
The woman entered the Union Gospel Mission because “she was coming down over the hill it was a real sunny day and the sun was shining on the white cross [on the front of the building],” Sharon said.
The woman found many kind people to talk to at the Mission, and built up enough courage to tell her family about her tumor.
“It was the perfect place for her to come. She got what she needed,” Sharon said.
The Union Gospel Mission is a family affair for the Bergrens.
“We have three kids, and they’ve been volunteering here since they were 10 years old,” Sharon said. Their son is now the van driver, and one of their daughters also works there. That makes it a little hard to leave work issues at work.
“Work pretty much comes home with us, we’re not one of the lucky ones that can just put in 40 hours,” Sharon said. “You can’t just turn it off and say, ‘Heck, I’ll deal with it tomorrow.’”
“For a while it was pretty rough, bringing it home,” Al said. “But we’re doing better at it.”
Sharon remembers another instance that reminds her why she works at the Mission.
“A young kid came in to the front desk. He had just lost his 12-year-old sister, killed by a drive-by shooter in the Cities. He needed somebody to talk to,” she said.
Sharon brought him into her office and talked to him. Then, “he just said ‘I’m gonna go now,’ and left,” Sharon remembers. “Later, I got a post card in the mail. It just said ‘Sharon, thank you for being there.’”
Those are only a few of the examples that tell the story of why Sharon and Al Bergren do what they do.
“You get the best satisfaction when you see something turn out good,” Al said. “We give them all we can. I wish we could replace their jobs or their loved ones, but we can’t do everything.”