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Bridge builders
Mr. Bob and crew bring food, clothing and compassion to homeless


November 29, 2010

Harvey Holzer, a volunteer with Mr. Bobís Under the Bridge Ministry, goes into action when the trailer pulls into Cathedral Square Park in Milwaukee.

The sun-drenched woman sits on the edge of the trailer, trying on a pair of used tennis shoes. She beams as she laces the left shoe and then the right. She tests the white shoes out against the gravel, under a bridge, warming under the early morning September sun.

"Here they are. Got íem," she proclaims.

Her search is complete. She found a sturdy, comfortable pair of tennis shoes. A free pair. A clean, dry pair. One that can withstand the long treks back and forth from her homeless dwelling under a bridge in the depths of the city to a hospital for chemotherapy treatment twice a week for colon cancer. She has nothing to her name, but now, for today at least, she has everything she needs.

She is one of dozens of homeless in Milwaukee who seek out the Mr. Bobís Under The Bridge trailer every Sunday morning. The trailer is towed by Bob Burmeister, a Cedarburg businessman, who has made it his mission to help the homeless. When the trailer arrives at Cathedral Sqare Park in Milwaukee, he and his right-hand man, Harvey Holzer, are met by about two dozen homeless people. The pair quickly jumps into action, doling out clothes, toiletry items, snacks and water from the back of the trailer.

"All I got left is size 34," Burmeister pronounces to the crowd as he held up a package of new menís briefs. "Going once, going twice, sold."

Winderlin Lemon held the last pair of stark white underwear tightly in his hand. He lifted the size 34 briefs up as he folded a side over. "You just sew them up with a needle and thread," he says as he stashes the pair in a plastic bag. "I need these. This is a need. This is not a want, itís a need. When you need something, you find a way. You redesign it and re-engineer it to the best of your ability. This is an opportunity."

Lemon had been homeless for about two weeks. "Apparently, God is in them," Lemon says of Burmeister and Holzer. "Their heart is in the right condition." Lemon explains that the homeless have an unmentioned code, in which they look out for each other. "Everybody pitches in and tries to help each other," he says. "People have situations and circumstances that are beyond their control, believe it or not."

Later, Burmeister, Holzer and a handful of volunteers typically go to some of the cityís hundreds of bridges in search of the homeless, traversing into dirty and dark concrete crevasses underneath roadways. They greet the homeless and hand out items from the back of the trailer. When they find someone, they simply ask what they need, never questioning why they are there, under a bridge, homeless.

"He does Godís work," says Harold Sloan, a homeless man. "Itís not about Bob, itís about what he does for the homeless. He is here through winter and inclement weather. He is also enlightening people. Itís not a disease, itís just bad choices that some of us have made."

Burmeister and Holzer know something of the struggles of those they help. "Both Harvey and I have an addiction," Burmeister says. "Mine was to drugs and alcohol, and his was to alcohol." Burmeister has been in recovery for 14 years; Holzer for about three. "Harvey asked me to be his sponsor and I agreed. That is why I have to whack him upside the head all of the time," Burmeister jokes. "That is how me and Harvey click, because we both have an addictive personality, and Mr. Bobís is addicting."

Mr. Bobís Under The Bridge is an outreach ministry of Advent Lutheran Church in Cedarburg, which began in the fall of 2009. "Our church is like a launching pad for it, but there is no committee and there is no overhead," says the Rev. Janis Kinens, pastor of Advent Lutheran Church. "From my perspective, itís an incredible blessing. He is setting an incredibly wonderful example in showing that you can be a full-time business owner, you can have a family life and a church life, and you can also help people that society, by and large, has ignored, forgotten about or considered a nuisance," Kinens says.

Burmeister and his wife, Sue, who is also very involved in Mr. Bobís Under The Bridge, joined the church in 2003. Because of their efforts, the couple are rarely at Sunday service, but thatís OK with Kinens. "ĎWhat makes you think that God is hanging out in our building?í" Kinens says he asked the couple when they came to him for his blessing to miss church.

Work for Mr. Bobís Under The Bridge goes on throughout the week. A dozen or so community and church members help organize donated clothes and supplies that fill the trailer. "The list goes on and on and on. I wish I could wrap my arms around everybody," Burmeister says. "There are so many that do so much and that goes down to the people that drop stuff off at my store every day," says Burmeister, owner of Cedarburg Outdoor Power Equipment. "Every day of the week there is something at my store that is donated."

Cedarburg businessman Bob Burmeister makes connections with the homeless he helps as part of an outreach ministry.

Staff members at Family Sharing of Ozaukee County help with the operation by donating clothing that they cannot use. Holzer taps into area rummage sales for clothing items. "I go to just about every rummage sale and hand out (business cards) and explain what we do," Holzer says. "Our stream of goods is pretty steady right now. Thatís going to dry up a little bit this winter."

The effort peaks Sunday when Holzer, Burmeister and a handful of volunteers make their early morning pilgrimage into Milwaukee. After unloading and distributing clothes and supplies, Burmeister and his crew arenít rushing home. They sit on park benches, trading stories with those they just helped. They give out hugs. They check up on those homeless who have health problems and special requests for clothes and items. And that resonates with those who live on the streets. "Bob knows us by name," Sloan says. "Weíre not dogs. We are people."

It is Burmeisterís faith that drives him to search for and help the homeless. "This is my church. This is the way I go to church on Sundays," he says. "What better way? What better way?" 




This story ran in the November 2010 issue of: