I’ve got a great story to tell you,” Suzanne Broad says from the Sweet Dream Makers warehouse in Boca Raton. She founded her nonprofit in December 2016 to provide beds and furniture to families in need. But the story she wants to tell is not about the furniture. It’s about the vast difference a good night’s sleep can make in a family’s life. There are the kids whose grades have improved because they’re no longer sleeping on the floor. Or the children who aren’t late for school because they wake up refreshed. “I talk to moms who say, ‘My child made honor role for the first time’ or ‘My child now wants to go to college,’” Broad says. “One mom said, ‘My teenage son is so helpful now.’”
In 2017, Sweet Dream Makers gave away 925 beds to local children and families. In 2018, the number grew to 1,600 beds. Clients include the working poor, the unemployed, migrant workers, victims of domestic violence, the disabled, the elderly, and people who were recently homeless. Most are working. But often they have nothing.
They often pull beds from dumpsters or inherit beds left by previous tenants, lumpy old beds with springs popping out.
Broad tells about a construction worker named Terry Hunter: “He and his wife divorced, and he remarried to a woman who has a 14-year-old daughter,” she says. “He has two kids from his first marriage: A 13-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son. They lived with their mom, but he was involved with the kids’ lives. They got by. They didn’t need any help.”
And then Hunter’s ex-wife abandoned his two kids. Hunter gained custody, and suddenly he and his wife were caring for three teenagers. They needed a bigger apartment, more beds, more furniture — which they couldn’t afford. A caseworker with a local nonprofit asked Broad for help. She immediately delivered two twin beds for the girls, a twin extra-long bed for the boy, and a king-size bed and bedroom set for the parents, who had been sleeping on a broken mattress with no box springs. Hunter also picked up gently used furniture from Broad’s warehouse, including a now-cherished item that most people take for granted: a dining room table.
“The table brings the family together,” Hunter says. “We say grace and everyone talks about their day. I never got to experience that growing up. To sit together as a family; it’s a big deal to me. Suzy is a wonderful lady.”
Like most people in affluent Palm Beach County, Broad was oblivious to the economic challenges faced by families like the Hunters. That changed over a decade ago when she volunteered as a room mom at her children’s school. “I wanted to host a holiday party and give the teacher a gift, and I asked for $10 from every parent,” she says. “One of the moms asked if she could pay me $2 a month because she didn’t have the money. That was eye-opening.”
Broad had worked as a freelance art director, but when business slowed during the recession, she became more involved in the community. She volunteered at a local soup kitchen and met people who were living in public housing. “I used to bring things — my kids’ clothing or some small appliances — and I’d hand them out to people,” she says. “More and more, people were asking me for necessities, socks, underwear, sneakers.” As she gained a reputation for giving, she received more requests. She would send email blasts to friends and neighbors, requesting clothes, furniture, and supplies. Soon social workers and local agencies heard about Broad.
“They would email me and it just grew and grew and grew,” she says. “The thing that was most difficult to find were clean, decent beds.”
Until 2016, Broad had worked with friends through a synagogue group called the Giving Tree. Their original goal was to buy holiday gifts for people in East Boca Raton, but as their mission expanded, Broad turned their informal effort into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. (Her husband, Brian, is president of the board.) The formal structure of a nonprofit allowed Broad to serve more people, but make no mistake: It’s still defined by her outgoing personality and generous spirit.
“She’s so passionate, so dedicated, and so willing to be directly involved,” says Doris Gillman, a board member and president of the Gillman Family Foundation, one of the organization’s biggest supporters. “When recipients come to the storage facility, she’s there to help them put things in their car. She tells us about the families. We see pictures. As a donor and a board member, we know how this has changed lives.”
That warmth is often missing from other organizations, says Anthony Sommer, targeted case manager for the nonprofit Community Partners, which works with Sweet Dream Makers. “Many of the community resources and charitable organizations I access to help my clients are very corporate,” he says. “If I had to make a distinction between those and Sweet Dream Makers, it’s Suzanne’s human touch and genuine empathy for anyone who needs help. She never judges. All Suzanne wants to know is who’s in need and what’s their address.”
Broad is interested in what people want — not what she thinks they want. It’s a lesson she learned when she first started assisting families. A police officer had asked if she could help an impoverished single mother with three kids, so Broad and her Giving Tree friends provided beds, dressers, a dining table, clothing, and school supplies. Two weeks later, when Broad visited the apartment, nothing had been put away.
“What I learned was, we gave her lamps, but we didn’t give her light bulbs, so she used the TV for a light,” says Broad. “We gave her a ton of clothing, but we didn’t give her hangers. We almost did her a disservice because we overwhelmed this woman who didn’t have the life skills to manage it. She had beds and a clean couch and a dining room table, and that was great, but we had marched in and taken over this young woman’s apartment. We left her in more chaos than she had before.”
With Sweet Dream Makers, families pick the furniture they want. Children choose their own beds. It’s not only empowering, but it can ease their discomfort. “A lot of times, especially the women, they come in our warehouse with a chip on their shoulder,” Broad says. “Families are often embarrassed. And I show them furniture and say, ‘Oh, what do you think about this? I believe this color would look nice with this couch — do you? Do you need a coffee maker? Look, we even have coffee filters for you.’ By the time they leave, it’s hugs. It’s tears. It’s so much gratitude.”
Beds remain the organization’s primary focus. Many of Broad’s families have never owned a new bed. They often pull beds from dumpsters or inherit beds left by previous tenants, lumpy old beds with springs popping out. “My goal is to get families into a bed within 24 hours of approving their request,” she says. “We treat every family with dignity and respect. It’s how I would hope to be treated if I found myself in such an awful situation.”
For Broad, interacting with families is the most rewarding part of her work. When she recently provided a bed to a single mother, the woman started sobbing. Until then, no one had offered help. “Now she texts me and sends me pictures,” says Broad. “She feels like she has a friend.”
The connections, she feels, are a blessing.
“We all know it’s better to give than receive,” she says. “But once you give, you totally know that it is. I am so lucky that I can give.”
Ken Budd is the author of The Voluntourist and the host of 650,000 Hours, an upcoming web series on travel and real-life American heroes.
This article is featured in the May/June 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Feature image: Once upon a mattress: In 2018, Sweet Dream Makers gave away 1,600 beds. Pictured, Executive Director Suzanne Broad with husband Brian. (Courtesy Suzanne Broad)