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UGM does what it can -- with a smile

Walk into the Union Gospel Mission on any of day of the week and be ready for a welcoming smile, an offer of coffee and a chance to sit down and rest a while.

Walk into the Union Gospel Mission on any of day of the week and be ready for a welcoming smile, an offer of coffee and a chance to sit down and rest a while.
But that's not all that this mission, which was founded in 1922, has to offer to people in need in the Twin Ports.
The Union Gospel Mission offers an incredible variety of services to everyone who walks in the door -- as long as they're sober, said Al Bergren, superintendent of the mission. His wife, Sharon, is the office manager there. His daughter, Kerri, works there as well.
Everything from a hot meal, a wool blanket, a Christmas party for children or advice on who to talk to about a gambling problem are available at the mission, to name just a few of the services offered there, he said.
Last year alone, the mission served 100,000 hot meals to the hungry and gave out more than 4,000 food baskets to families and individuals who needed food at home, as well as hygiene kits for women.
The organization provides shelter as well, renting out single occupancy sleeping rooms upstairs for people who need a place to stay. Mittens, warm blankets and hats are also offered to anyone who needs them.
The staff also provides a variety of services to clients, including referrals to agencies and advice on everything from who to talk to about veterans benefits or what to do about a difficult landlord.
And the mission now holds several AA meetings every week as well as Bible study groups, which are becoming more popular every year, Sharon said. Services are also held at the mission at noon on Sundays.
The mission also works with local churches to bring youths to Christian summer camps as well as gives Christmas parties for them every year. This year, the mission is sponsoring 400 Duluth children for Christmas and will hold a giant Christmas party for them on Dec. 15. The children and their parents will be invited into the mission dining room, which will be piled with gifts.
There, they can make their choices as well as pick out stocking stuffers, Al said.
This kind of caring is typical of the mission which has been ministering to the needy in Duluth for almost 80 years, thanks to the generosity of numerous businesses and individuals who donate money, goods and their time to the mission, he said.
The mission survives on small grants and hundreds of donations from the community, and it wouldn't be able to do the work it does if it weren't for the hundreds of volunteers who turn up every year to help out in any way they can, he said.
What strikes the first-time visitor walking through the front door is the warmth and friendliness of the place.
More often than not, Al or his wife, Sharon, will greet you with a smile and a kind word. And if they're busy, one of the employees or volunteers at the mission will do the job for them.
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Being friendly and open to anyone who comes to the mission is a philosophy of this hard-working couple who have worked at the mission for years.
"We're not here to sit in judgment over people," Sharon said. "We're here to do what we can. Sometimes it just takes a little hug or a smile to change somebody's life around."
"That's one of my requirements of the staff," Al said. "One of my staff asked me once if it was OK to sit down with someone if they wanted to pray or wanted to talk. I told him, 'You sit down with them, because you're getting paid for it.' The heart comes first, here."
Al looked at his wife and said, "Do you remember that little old lady that came in here one day who was so sad?"
Sharon nodded. "You talked to her for a while," she said.
Al laughed ruefully. "I listened for awhile, but then I had to go and get you. I got tears in my eyes," he said.
The couple said the 80-year-old woman seemed quite depressed.
"She just looked at me with those big, sad eyes and said, 'I don't know what I'm so depressed about,'" Sharon said. Instead of immediately giving her advice, Sharon did what she does so well -- listened.
The woman talked for about 20 minutes about her life, Sharon said. They parted quietly, and Sharon went about her work.
Just before the woman left, she walked over to Sharon with shining eyes. "I just want to thank you for sitting and talking to me," the woman said. "I feel so much better now."
The couple looked at each other and smiled. "We've worked for the last four years to make this a safe harbor for seniors and families," Al said.
They've done it with a zero tolerance policy in the mission. Clients who come to the mission are required to be sober -- no alcohol, drugs or weapons are tolerated, he said.
"It's tough love," Sharon said. "You have to come here sober and behave yourself."
That policy created quite a stir in the community when the Bergrens first proposed it, they said.
"I got blasted really hard by some people," Al said. "They felt we should serve anybody who came in here, whether they were drunk or not."
"You can't reach people when they're drunk," Sharon said. "They have to be sober."
The policy has really worked, they said. "There's always a chance to give a message of hope to somebody," Sharon said.
For more information about the mission, its programs and how you can help, call 722-1196.
Joan Farnam is the Budgeteer community page editor and can be reached at joan.farnam@duluth.com or 723-1207.

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